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Jodi Thomas

Texan's Touch

The first book in the Texas Brothers series, 1998

This book is dedicated to

my editor,

Gail Fortune,

with great love and respect.

ONE

THE CROP-BARREN hills echoed with rumbles of man-made thunder, scattering it like death’s breeze through the cluster of hospital tents and worn, muddy transport wagons. Dr. Adam McLain pulled off his bloody coat and tossed it atop the mountain of dirty laundry beside the opening of the surgery tent.

He fought the constant churning in his stomach from a combination of bad food and unbearable working conditions as he slipped into his double-breasted wool uniform. He didn’t bother to button it to meet the proper Union dress code.

After working almost thirty hours straight, a numbness had settled over him like damp flannel, covering even the creases of his mind, blocking out all dreams, all hopes, and most of his senses. His hands were badly chapped from hours of being cold and wet with blood.

They’ll scab over while I sleep, he thought as he moved through the shadows between tents. The smell of boiling coffee blended in the cool mist of early spring. There had been another time, another place in his life, but after four years of war, the memories were odorless, tasteless, and almost invisible.

He could feel his body shutting down with each step toward his quarters. For a few hours he would close his eyes and escape in sleep. He no longer wished for a touch of beauty in his life, silence seemed enough. Living seemed a luxury, survival the only necessity.

The chief surgeon’s words still rang in his ears. “Work faster, McLain! For every moment you hesitate to consider, another soldier dies waiting.”

So, at twenty-five, Adam’s dreams of becoming a great physician were shattered, splattering his hopes like soldier’s after soldier’s blood in the dirt. He wasn’t saving lives, or healing. He was only digging bullets out. If he was successful, the man would live on to fight, to shoot rounds into men in gray for some other doctor to worry about. Adam had thought he’d be a knight in this game of war, but he was only a pawn, cutting away like a butcher until he no longer saw faces, but only blood over blackened flesh.

As Adam lifted the flap of his tent, he thought he caught a movement in the corner. For a moment, he hoped his older brother might have found him. It was time for one of Wes’s one-hour reunions.

But, before more could register, the cold butt of a gun struck him from behind. Pain splintered into total blackness. Adam felt his body falling as he surrendered all feeling.

“You’re an idiot, Rafe!” a low, angry man’s Southern-accented voice whispered. “When we said bring back a doctor, we meant one in gray, not a damn Yankee.”

“I couldn’t find no one else!” a higher voice answered in almost a whine. “Docs don’t grow on trees, you know. I went by the camp and there weren’t one, so I followed the river a few miles and stumbled on another group of hospital tents. I figured a doc’s a doc, Tyler.”

“I say we kill him now,” a third tone, cold with indifference, offered. “He’s no good to us. We’re so close to the line as it is, one good scream could bring all hell down on us.”

“No!” the first man, who’d been referred to as Tyler, answered. “We haven’t got time to find another doctor. Nick will be dead by dawn.”

Adam McLain slowly opened his eyes, then closed them in dread. Just as he’d guessed, the men before him weren’t green recruits, but seasoned fighters who looked born to war. They had no hint of uniform, but the voices and the weapons they carried marked them. One was older, harder. The angry one called Tyler looked to be the leader. He was young and rawhide lean. The third, called Rafe, was little more than a boy.

Opening his eyes once more, Adam looked straight into the face of Tyler.

The leader knelt close without breaking his stare. “You awake, Yank?”

“I’m awake.” Adam saw a coldness in the reb’s eyes and knew he was alive only because they needed a doctor. He saw a man curled up on a table amid the clutter of an abandoned farmhouse. A thin stream of blood ran across the dusty wood and dripped onto a stool pushed halfway beneath the table.

“Untie me.” Adam could hear the dying man’s breathing from across the room. If he didn’t help fast, the man on the table wouldn’t have enough blood left to survive.

Tyler laughed. “Not yet, Doc. I got a proposition for you first. We’re part of a group of men known as the Shadows. Ever hear of us?”

Adam nodded. Who hadn’t heard of the Shadows? They were men who crossed the lines as if they were playing jump rope. Every soldier who walked the perimeters of camp thought he heard them move in the darkness just beyond the campfires.

Leaning closer, Tyler said, “We got one of our troop down and we need a doctor bad. I risked a fire and brought in water, but none of us know what to do. If you agree to take the bullet out and sew him up, we might just let you live.”

“Might,” the older man answered from behind the leader. He appeared to be trimming his fingernails with the end of his hunting knife.

“And if I refuse?” Adam pulled at his ropes. The dying man’s breathing told him they were wasting precious time.

The young reb smiled again. “Then I turn you over to Henry here. He knows ways to make a man die slow. You’ll meet your Maker deaf from listening to your own screaming.”

Adam knew he now measured his life by a watch and not a calendar. “I’ll help the injured man any way I can, but I won’t operate with you breathing down my neck. If you trust me with his life, then I work by my rules. And the first one is, I work alone.”

The older man snorted at the request, and the kid laughed as though he’d just asked for the moon.

“All right.” Tyler straightened to his feet after he weighed the request. “Everyone out. We’ll cover the doors. You do the best you can, Yank.” He cut the ropes at Adam’s feet. “But if Nick is dead come morning, you can count your remaining heartbeats on your fingers.”

As Tyler sliced Adam’s hands free, Rafe tossed him his medical saddlebags. “Nick’s the little brother of our captain and he won’t take kindly to you butchering the boy, so be careful. Your life is tied to his.”

Adam hardly noticed as the men slipped from the room. He knew whether he saved the bleeding man or not, he’d be dead by sunrise. They couldn’t afford to let him live after he’d seen their faces. He knew it and so did Tyler.

Slowly, Adam moved to the side of a long table where a thin man, still in coat and boots, rested. “Let’s take a look, reb. No use both of us dying.”

As Adam gripped the man’s shoulder and rolled him over, a Colt, pointed straight at Adam’s heart, rolled with

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