Margaret Brownley, page 1
A Long Way Home
Copyright @ 2012 by Margaret Brownley
Logan St. John knew his town was no place for a woman.
Especially one who scrubs his buckskins; turns a bunch of
rough miners into choirboys; and hangs curtains in the saloon!
Libby Summerfield hadn’t stopped praying for five solid hours. The journey had been sheer torture and riding in the back of the wagon offered little protection from the cold.
The recent rains had washed away anything favorable about the road, leaving behind endless ruts and rocks and an occasional tree root held in place with more luck than soil.
The last glimmer of daylight had long disappeared by the time the horse-drawn wagon swung onto the narrow dirt road that led to Deadman’s Gulch, one of the many towns that had sprung up overnight since last year’s discovery of gold in California.
At long last the wagon rolled to a stop and she struggled to sit upright. “Are we there?”
When the cheerless driver failed to answer she peered through the rough slatted sides, squinting in an effort to pick out signs of the town. What few stars could be seen through the clouds failed to penetrate the thick darkness that settled over the land.
A cramp shot through her calf. “Oh, rot!”
She rubbed the affected area then reached behind to relieve the ache in her lower back. The threadbare blanket tossed to her by the driver at the beginning of the journey was barely adequate to cover her and had done nothing to cushion her body from the battering jolts.
“This can’t be Deadman’s Gulch!” She expected more of the town, at least a hotel or boarding house, but only the whispering rustle of trees and rush of a nearby creek greeted her.
The grizzled driver took a long swig from the cask he kept beneath the buckboard seat and wiped his hand across his mouth. “This is as close as I’m gittin’,” he drawled. “You’re on your own from here on in.”
She glared at his dark form. “I paid you to take me to Deadman’s Gulch.”
The driver hopped to the ground and reached for her luggage, a weather-beaten leather valise that held a change of clothing, a few sparse toiletries, a baby’s layette, and a lock of hair that had belonged to her late husband. The valise fell to the ground with an unceremonious thud.
Everything she owned was in that valise.
“Wait! You can’t do that.” With a great deal of effort she managed to heave her somewhat awkward bulk over the splintered sideboards of the wagon. Skirts and petticoats aflutter, her high-buttoned boots scrambled recklessly until she found a foothold above the back wheel.
Despite her somewhat precarious position atop the wagon side, she kept her wits about her and managed to bombard the driver with a thorough tongue-wagging. “Just wait till I report you to the proper authorities!”
The driver seemed unperturbed by her threats, as well he might. If there was a proper authority anywhere in California Libby had not seen him, nor, as far as she knew, had anyone else.
But it made her feel better to say it. Without thought of decorum or grace, she managed to reach the ground, ripping one of only two dresses she owned that still accommodated her ungainly figure.
She didn’t bother checking out the tear; she had more important things to worry about. Her hand flew to her swollen belly. What a belly it was, as big or bigger than the watermelon her grandpapa grew the summer she turned fifteen, and almost as hard to the touch.
Assured that everything was as it should be inside, she gave a silent thanks to the Lord before turning back to the driver. “You promised to take me into town!” Oh, the nerve of the man, throwing her precious belongings around like a sack of rubbish! Then threatening to leave her stranded only God knows where.
“I paid you good money!”
“You paid me ‘nuff to pay for my likker and ‘bacco, but not ‘nuff to get me head blowed off.”
So that was it, she fumed. He wanted more money. “You’re nothing but a two-timing thief, that’s what you are.” The thought of being left stranded filled her with horror. Fighting panic, her tirade escalated. “You should be ashamed of yourself for taking advantage of a woman in a family way. A deal is a deal, you…”
She threw out every insulting word she could thing of in rapid-fire succession.
She ran out of breath before she ran out of suitable barbs, but it probably didn’t matter. He was obviously immune to insults, if indeed he even understood half of what she said, which she doubted. She clamped her mouth shut and decided that contrary to her nature, she’d better think before she acted. The life of the baby she carried depended on it. Unfortunately, the more she thought the worst her plight became. She cast an uneasy glance toward the menacing shadows and shivered against the icy chill that touched her heart. Oh, rot. She was going to have to bargain with the man. She cleared her voice. “Your name is?”
“Roseborough. Harvey Roseborough.”
Thornborough would be a more suitable name, but she fought the urge to tell him so. Her best chance was to throw herself at his mercy and hope the man was capable of some small measure of human kindness.
“Mr. Roseborough, I’m sure you are a reasonable man,” she beseeched. “I don’t have much gold left.” All she had was what she panned herself, her late husband having gambled his findings away. “I’m sure we can work out an agreement. Please. I beg of you.”
The man snorted and spit, a stream of tobacco juice hitting the ground with a little whoosh. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere near that town. Makes no diff’rence how much you pay me. The last time I drove there, I darn near got meself kilt. No one goes there unless they is crazy.” The man reclaimed the driver’s seat and reached for the reins.”
“Wait!” she pleaded. Oh, Lord, don’t let him leave me here! She considered planting herself in the middle of the street, but wisely decided against it. A man so determined to leave as to refuse money couldn’t be trusted to let a human life stand in the way of his departure.
The driver swung the wagon around in a frenzied arc, sending pebbles and dirt flying in her face. She jumped back and waved away the dust. The wagon tore off in the direction they’d come. Its wheels rumbled loudly.
Hands on her waist, Libby stared after the retreating wagon. “You can’t leave me here!” she called at the top of her lungs. “Think of the baby!”
“Quit your belly-achin’,” the driver yelled back. “You only have a mile to walk.”
“A mile…?” She turned and stared in the opposite direction. A tiny light no larger than a pinhole glimmered in the distance,
Behind her the sound of wagon wheels faded away. From yonder hills came the yips of a lone coyote. Overhead the winter moon burst through the clouds providing some much needed light.
Shivering, she drew her fringed woolen shawl around her shoulders and glanced anxiously at the shadows that loomed on either side of her. Swallowing hard, she chided herself for giving in to her fears.
Since arriving in California fourteen months earlier she’d been through hell and high water. Surely nothing that awaited her in Deadman’s Gulch could be worse than losing a husband and being left stranded in an untamed land thousands of miles from home and family with a child on the way and no immediate prospect of improving her lot.
Thoughts of the baby filled her with anxiety. There were scant few women in this part of the state, and no midwives. The nearest doctor in the area was in Centreville. With a little bit of luck, she should be able to catch the morning stage out of Deadman’s Gulch and be in Centreville by the following night
Cheered by the thought she felt her way in the dark until she located h
It was December and the wind blowing off the snow-covered peaks of the upper Sierra Mountains sliced through the thin fabric of her calico dress like the hard cold blade of a knife. Shivering, she forced herself to concentrate on the tiny speck of light ahead. A mile indeed! It was more like five miles.
It was slow going, mainly because of her bulk. The road was dangerously rutted and several times she stumbled and almost fell. The tiny circle of light eventually grew larger. Odd shaped structures loomed ahead and she could hear the unmistakable sounds of civilization: dogs barking, a fiddle playing, and the shouting of male voices. An argument?
Unable to catch her breath, she stopped to rest. That’s when she heard it: the sharp sound of gun fire.
A gripping fear surge through her body, making it almost impossible for her to breathe. Frozen to the spot, she shivered in the darkness, her senses alert. Despite her earlier resolve, every bone-chilling tale she’d ever heard about the wild and lawless inhabitants of Deadman’s Gulch came back to haunt her.
The bullet had soared over Logan St. John’s head and ripped a hole through the canvas ceiling of the Golden Hind Saloon. The sharp report commanded the full attention of the three dozen or more miners packed into the place. Not even the clink of a gold piece had stirred the silence as all eyes lifted from the green baize gambling tables and riveted upon the short, stocky man with a black eye patch.
With a demonic grin, the gunman lowered the barrel of his weapon until it pointed straight at St. John’s chest.
“I should have warned you, St. John,” the gunman slurred. “I’m a bad loser.” Yellow teeth parted a mangy beard as his forefinger played with the trigger. His fiendish grin failed to reach his one bloodshot eye.
Logan St. John regarded the man with contempt. There was nothing he hated more than being on the business side of a gun. Unless it was to have his poker game interrupted. Flint was guilty of both. But that wasn’t all he was guilty of. The man had been pushing his weight around town since his arrival a week ago. More than one man had been found with a bullet in his back and St. John was willing to bet that Flint was the culprit. It was time to teach the man a lesson.
“You know what they say, Flint.” St. John drawled lazily, so lazily in fact, one would think he was the one with the gun, the one holding the advantage. “There’s nothing more fun than beating a poor loser.”
With that, he kicked the under part of a game table with his foot, catching the man off-guard. Poker chips and playing cards flew from one end of the small crowded saloon to the other. A snapping tension filled the air, followed by shuffling feet as the other patrons grabbed their drinks and crowded next to the canvas walls, leaving the center free.
Before Flint recovered from his surprise, St. John had knocked the gun from his pudgy, small hand. Flint reacted with a violent thrust of a fist, but St. John ducked and threw his weight against Flint’s legs. Flint hit the floor with a grunt then managed to push St. John away with a thrust of his well-worn Jackboots.
St. John flew backward against the bar.
Flint jumped to his feet and charged after St. John, snorting like an angry bull. But he was no match for St. John and in an embarrassingly short time, he was sprawled on the floor, winded.
St. John stood over him feeling none the worse for wear. He picked up Flint’s tattered felt hat and tossed it to him. “If you know what’s good for you, Flint, you’ll not show your ugly face around here again.”
Flint rose unsteadily to his feet, holding his stomach with both hands. “You ain’t seen the last of me, St. John.”
Amid laughter and jeers, he made his way to the open door of the saloon and staggered outside to his piebald horse.
Feet aching, Libby scowled at the seemingly deserted buildings on the outskirts of town. If she ever got her hands on that no-good driver…
A horse loomed from seemingly nowhere and headed straight for her. With a startled cry, she jumped out of the way, but even so, she felt a strong current of air as the horse flew by. Her foot slipped, followed by a moment of confusion as the ground gave way beneath her.
Her senses spun as she tumbled down the embankment and was swallowed by icy waters. Arms and legs flailing, she thrashed about, gasping for air. Several seconds passed before she realized the icy creek ran less than two foot deep.
Sputtering, she pushed herself upward. Shivering, she crawled up the slight incline and collapsed in a clump of tall grass, gasping for air. The ba…by. Oh, God, please save my baby.
As soon as she caught her breath, she rolled over on her back and pressed her frozen fingers ever so gently against her swollen belly. Please be all right.
Her skirt and shirtwaist clung to her. The wet calico sheathed her like a thin coat of ice, and her teeth chattered. Never had she felt so cold in her life.
A terrorizing thought filled her head; if the fall hadn’t hurt the baby, certainly the cold would.
Thinking she’d freeze to death if she lay there much longer she forced herself to her feet. She wandered around in a daze until she located her valise. She tugged on the leather handle, but she couldn’t seem to lift the luggage off the ground. Indeed, she barely had enough strength left to stand on her own two feet. He heart ached at the thought of leaving her precious belongings by the wayside. But she had no choice.
Tears blurred her vision as she stumbled forward. Shivering with fear and cold, she fought against the panic building inside her.
The unwieldy shapes of canvas saloons, teeming with shadowy men, quivered and glowed like golden hot-air balloons about to take flight.
The incessant cries of Monte dealers rose from various tents. “Make your bets, gentleman. Make your bets!” This was met with shouts of “Come down wit your dust” and “Bar the porte.”
The high-pitched scream of a fiddle soared above the rowdy sounds of argumentative voices and loud, mirthless guffaws.
The street itself was empty except for the horses tied to wooden hitching posts in front of the various saloons. One horse neighed softly as she passed. A mule heehawed.
She nearly stumbled over a prone body that lay in the middle of the dirt road. Not knowing if the man was dead or merely drunk, Libby held her breath as she stepped around him.
Where was it? The hotel. There had to be a hotel someplace. Or a boardinghouse or something other than a saloon.
She reached the end of the town, passing no less than seven rowdy saloons on the way, but not a single hotel.
A nearby shout startled her.
Curses scorched her ears, followed by a thud and a groan. Panicking, she ran. Gunfire sounded behind her. Something grazed her shoulder. A hand? Not a hand…
Terrified for her baby, she grabbed onto the post of a wooden shack and clambered up the uneven steps to the porch. Something pulled her downward. She fought against the invisible force until she could fight no more.
Most men would not have heard the soft sound coming from outside the door, but Logan St. John was not like most men. He had senses as sharp as any wild animal; this was not surprising considering he’d spent all but five of his thirty-six years living in some of the wildest, rawest land in the northwest.
His lean body ready to spring into action with the slightest provocation, Logan pulled his gun out of his holster and turned to face the door. All this was done in one smooth, efficient move.
It was Flint. It had to be Flint. Drat! What a bothersome man. Back looking for trouble, no doubt. Well, Logan was just the man to give it to him.
Despite his resolve, he viewed the prospect as more of a nuisance than something he relished. He’d had a hard day in the diggings, and an even harder night at the gambling tables. To make matters worse, the cold wintry air had settled in his injured leg, causing it to ache worse than a mouthful of rotten teeth.
What he wanted was
Senses alert, he stood perfectly still. Nothing. Obviously, Flint was timing his ambush carefully, waiting no doubt for Logan to douse his lantern and fall asleep. Fool man. Showed how much he knew. Even when a trapper slept he remained on guard.
Chiding himself for not being done with the man when he had the chance earlier, Logan decided to get the matter over with quickly. He moved toward the door, his moccasins soundless against the dirt-packed floor.
Ear pressed next to the wood, he shut his eyes and waited. It was dark outside, and Flint wasn’t likely to wait for Logan’s vision to adjust before he attacked. He ignored the sounds of gunfire and the wild whoops of miners in the distance. It was the sound of human breathing that he listened for, the sound of a bending knee or hushed footstep. Sounds too soft for most men to hear.
When he was certain he’d acquired his night vision, he held his gun cocked and posed, then ripped the door open with such force that the entire shanty shook on its foundation and threatened to collapse around him in a heap of splintered wood.
Nothing. Eyes sharp, he rapidly scanned the dark shadows for the least movement or suspicious form.
That’s when he saw the body lying at the edge of his porch. Shaking his head in disgust, he shoved his gun into the belt at his waist. Just another drunk.
Having learned at an early age not to show his back, he stepped aft into the cabin and stopped just short of the open doorway upon hearing a soft sigh, no louder than a kitten’s mew. Frowning, he glanced again at the dark form, not sure he’d heard right.
Another sound, barely above a whisper, convinced him to take a closer look.
Thinking it was a trick he moved cautiously to the side of the prone body and dropped to his one good knee. His touch elicited another soft moan and this time there was no mistake; it was a woman!
“What in tarnation…?”