Margaret brownley, p.14

Margaret Brownley, page 14

 

Margaret Brownley
 


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  Despite the early hour, it appeared that every miner in town was gathered on the spot. Some were heaving logs across the snow with the help of thick-flanked mules. Others were hammering or sawing. Most were standing around a large bonfire issuing orders or drinking coffee out of steaming tin cups.

  Logan limped across the street, oblivious to the fact that in his red long johns he stood out likes a polecat at a picnic. “What in blazes is going on here?” he demanded, addressing no one in particular.

  McGuire, who was bent over some rough drawings, straightened and lifted a hand in greeting. “Morning, St. John.” He patted the framework. “Wouldn’t you say this is gonna be a mighty fine house?”

  “The very best,” Sharkey said. “Look a’ here. This here is gonna be the first glass window in town.”

  Not to be outdone, Big Sam pointed to the opposite wall. “And over there will be a fine stone fireplace.”

  “This is all very interesting,” Logan said. “But why are you going to all this trouble?”

  “It’s no trouble,” McGuire assured him. “When the lassie and Noel see their new house…”

  “What did you say?” Logan stared at the men. “You’re building this for Libby?”

  “With our very own hands.”

  Logan threw back his head and laughed. “Have you men gone loco? It was only a short time ago that the bunch of you couldn’t be in the same room together without coming to blows. Do you actually believe you’re going to build a house together?”

  “That we do,” McGuire said, looking offended. “That we do.”

  Logan shook his head. “This I’ve got to see.” He never heard of such a foolish notion, but convinced that the men would soon get into a fight and call the whole thing off—or better yet kill each other—he limped back to the cabin. He meant to get some shut-eye and he pitied anyone who dared interfere!

  No sooner had he slipped back between the folds of his bedroll when Noel let out an ear-piercing cry.

  *****

  Logan longed for some good old-fashioned peace and quiet, but what he got was constant noise. Noel’s loud lusty cries filled the hours between bedtime and dawn, at which time the hammering and sawing began and continued throughout the day until it was time for Noel’s lungs to take over the night shift again. Logan couldn’t believe it. Twenty-four hours a day of nonstop uproar.

  Logan had every intention of heading for the hills to search for a nice quiet cave where he could catch up on some shut-eye. But his plans were thwarted by Libby, who insisted he watch Noel while she kept the construction workers plied with hot coffee, flapjacks and rabbit stew.

  Her biscuits were the talk of the town. Even Logan couldn’t get enough of them.

  “Made them with baking soda,” Libby explained. “I was lucky to find some cans of it at the general store.” Baking soda, or saleratus as some called it, had many uses; the most prevalent being to clean butter churns. But Libby much preferred to use it as a leavening agent.

  “Mr. Montana said I was the only one in town who knew what to do with it. Said he never sold a can until I came along.”

  “Is that so?” Logan had no idea biscuits could be so light. “I’m going to have to get me some of that baking soda.”

  His cabin became a regular chow station, with people stomping through from morn till night. As word of Libby’s amazing baking soda biscuits spread, there seemed to be a never-ending line winding its way to Logan’s front door.

  As good as the biscuits were Logan nevertheless suspected that the men were using the biscuits as an excuse to get closer to Libby, and he felt obligated to watch over her. He kept the line moving and allowed no conversation to last more than fifteen seconds. Some of the miners took exception to Logan’s overbearing tactics. Even Libby complained.

  “I swear, Logan St. John, I don’t know what gets into you at times. You were rude to Duncan.”

  “I was not rude to Duncan. He’s a married man and I mean to see that he stays married.”

  Libby looked puzzled. “You think his asking for seconds will hurt his marriage in some way?”

  Put in those terms, it did sound ridiculous, but he could hardly confess his real concern that Duncan was taking a liking to her. “It’s that baking soda,” he said. “Too much of it and a man can get forgetful.”

  “I never heard of such a thing.”

  “Well, I daresay there’re a lot of things you haven’t heard. I think we owe it to McGuire’s family to cut down on the biscuits.”

  She narrowed her eyes and studied him through the thick fringe of her eyelashes. “You’re not jealous, are you?”

  He stared at her in astonishment. “Jealous? Whatever gave you that idea?”

  “I don’t know. It’s just the way you’ve been acting lately.”

  “I haven’t been acting any special way,” he protested. “Besides, if I were jealous it would mean that—”

  He stared at the floor. “And of course that’s not true,” he said thickly.

  “Of course not,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

  He stole a quick glance at her. Her cheeks had grown flushed and he wondered if this meant her heart was pounding as fast as his.“You going to Boston and all…”

  “And you up north to resume trapping.”

  Her gaze met his. “It was a foolish thing for me to say,” she stammered. “Please accept my apology.”

  “No need to apologize,” he said, but his thoughts were far less magnanimous. If I am jealous, it’s because you made me have feelings I’ve no right to have. “The idea wasn’t that foolish. Under any other conditions, we might have…you know.”

  “If you weren’t a mountain man, you mean?’

  He’d been thinking about his leg, but he would never admit such a thing aloud. His leg made him feel less of a man, and he hated feeling that way around her. “That too. But I was thinking more along the lines of you being a city-bred woman and all.”

  She wiped her hands on the apron fashioned out of a flour bag and reached for her rolling pin. “You’re quite right,” she said. Her voice was suddenly prim, clipped, coming between them like a closed door. “Would you mind changing Noel’s breeches while I finish up here?”

  He backed away from the table. Somehow he felt there was something more to be said. But he couldn’t for the life of him think what that something could be.

  He gave Noel his morning bath, then stood guard in front of the cabin so that Libby could nurse the baby in private. All the while he wondered how in blazes he ever got in such a family way.

  One day he was living a quiet and contented existence and the next day his entire life had been turned upside-down, sideways, and every which-way possible. It was the strangest thing that ever happened to him. All this stuff about him being jealous. Is that what a man gets for moving to civilization? If so, he wanted no part of it. As soon as the snow melted, he would trek back to the peace and quiet of nature, and that was where he intended to stay!

  *****

  Libby followed the crowd of miners across the way and into the newly built cabin. Inside, the fresh smell of newly sawed wood filled the air.

  “It’s lovely! Absolutely beautiful,” she cried.

  Each man took special pride in pointing out his own contribution. Sharkey opened and closed the windows to demonstrate. “You won’t find windows this free and easy in Boston,” he said without modesty.

  Recalling the heavy framed windows of her childhood home, Libby agreed. “You are absolutely right.” She hugged the slender man. “Oh, Sharkey, how can I ever thank you?”

  “Now step over here, Miz Libby,” Big Sam said, pulling her away from Sharkey. He ran a large hand across the face of the stone fireplace. “I handpicked every stone myself.” He explained. “Notice how they all fit together like family.”

  Libby trailed her hand after his, feeling the smooth stone against her palm. “It’s beautiful. Oh, Big Sam…” She threw her arms around his thick dark neck, bring
ing a wide beam to his face.

  “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Beaker insisted. “Wait till you see the bedroom.”

  The room was small, but well built with one high window. “So the bairn won’t go crawlin’ through,” McGuire explained. “My son once crawled through the window and disappeared. It wasn’t till two days later that we found him.”

  At the thought of Noel escaping the safety of his home, Libby shuddered. “You were lucky you found him.”

  “That Ah was.”

  Thornton, dressed in his usual elegant attire, pointed to the pine bookshelves that lined one wall of the bedroom. “I had my men build these,” he explained. “It’s never too early to start Noel appreciating literature.”

  “I quite agree,” Libby said, rubbing her hand across the satin smooth wood. “I can’t thank all of you enough.”

  They returned to the main room “Well, what do you think?” Sharkey asked.

  “I think this is the loveliest house I’ve ever seen.” Libby’s eye grew moist with tears of gratitude. It was the sort of house she had once dreamed of sharing with Jeffrey.

  Beaker held up his hand. “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” He opened the front door to reveal Hap on the porch, his arms circled around a large wooden tub sealed with pitch to prevent leakage.

  Libby squealed in delight. “I can’t believe it. A bathtub.”

  Hap stepped through the doorway and set the bathtub in front of the fireplace. “I’ve been using it for storage, but the men, here, convinced me that you would put it to better use.”

  McGuire gave the tub a quick swipe with a red bandanna. “”Course it took an experienced married man ta suggest it,” he said, taking full credit.

  “I am most grateful to all of you,” Libby said. Words seemed so inadequate that for the longest while she stood and stared around her, too overwhelmed with emotion to speak.

  After a while, the Scotsman stepped forward. “Ah guess we can ask ya the question that’s uppermost in our minds. Will ya stay?”

  She was touched that the miners had gone to so much trouble on her behalf, and it was all she could do to swallow the lump in her throat. “You do know I plan to leave as soon as the weather permits,” she said gently. She didn’t want to appear unappreciative for all their hard work, but her first consideration had to be for Noel.

  “That won’t be for two more months,” Duncan pointed out. “It’s mighty chancy traveling at this time of year. Ya know we’re gonna ta have a few more bad storms before spring.”

  “I know,” Libby said. “But I have to be honest with you. I will be leaving in the spring.”

  “Spring lasts all the way up to June,” Big Sam said.

  Thornton frowned. “June is too late to start the journey back home. The trip to Boston is at least five months by overland. Longer if you go around the cape.”

  Libby dreaded the thought of making that long awful trip with a baby. It had been difficult enough when she made it with Jeffrey. “Thornton is right. Timing is critical.”

  McGuire signaled the other men not to push her any further. “We have a few weeks before ya have ta make any decisions. Meanwhile, enjoy ya new home.”

  More discussion followed and soon it was settled. Libby and Noel would move into the house first thing the following morning. She would stay until spring. The exact date would be determined by the weather. Meanwhile, everyone agreed that the little town of Deadman’s Gulch would have itself a fine little family.

  As soon as the tour was over Libby returned to the cabin to find Logan sound asleep on the chair in front of the fire. Noel was nestled peacefully in the crook of Logan’s arms.

  The sight of man and child warmed her heart, and she stood absorbing the peaceful scene and tried to keep her feelings under control. She’d felt so much for this man in the short time she’d known him. Fear, distrust, gratitude.

  But this…this sudden tug of her heartstrings was something else again. Not brave enough to put a name to it, she decided it was a very good thing that she would be moving into her own home. Not that she had anything to worry about. She could never have serious feelings for a man like Logan.

  They were of two different worlds, but it wasn’t just that. She sensed in him a restlessness that would forever pull at him. She’d already loved and lost one man—lost him because he too had to answer the call of the wild.

  She could never again go through what she’d been through the last year. What she wanted, desperately needed, was a man willing to settle into a quiet family life. A man who loved Boston as much as she loved it; a man able to share the same hopes and dreams for the future.

  Logan could never be that man.

  That didn’t mean that she wouldn’t miss this sometimes brusque, sometimes gentle, man. Without realizing it, she had grown to depend on him; had learned to tolerate, even understand his strange ways.

  She was painfully aware that after tonight, she would no longer be able to lie in bed and listen to his soft even breathing.

  Or covertly watch him sleep by the fire.

  Or share with him the endless joy that Noel brought her.

  Logan stirred and she quickly looked away and checked the rope that stretched across the room to see if Noel’s clothes were dry. It wouldn’t do to let him catch her watching him.

  She waited until late that afternoon before informing Logan that she and Noel would be moving into the finished house across the way. She assumed he would be delighted to hear what she had to tell him. Instead, he gaped at her like she’d taken leave of her senses.

  “You what!”

  “I said I’ve decided to stay in Deadman’s Gulch until February or March. No longer though.”

  “March? That’s two months away. I thought you hated it here.”

  “Now that I’ve gotten to know the men I’ve discovered they have hearts of gold. Why Thornton even promised to sing an aria from Carmen. I don’t know many men who could do that, do you?”

  “I don’t know any man who would want to,” he muttered.

  “And the house is so lovely,” Libby continued. “The men went to so much trouble, I simply can’t disappoint them.”

  “Heaven forbid,” Logan grunted.

  “I’ll be moving in first thing tomorrow morning.”

  “Tomorrow!”

  She looked at him with uncertainty. “If you like, I’ll move tonight. That way you won’t have your sleep disturbed again.”

  “Tomorrow will be fine,” Logan said, his voice clipped. He raked his hair with his fingers. “I changed Noel’s breeches. He should sleep a little longer.”

  She nodded. “Logan, I …” She bit her lower lip before continuing. “There aren’t many men who would have taken me in and cared for Noel and me as you have.”

  He shrugged and looked embarrassed. “Well, now.”

  “I’ll never forget everything you’ve done…” Her eyes burned with tears she was not, absolutely, not going to shed. “If there is any way I can repay you for your kindness, please let me know.”

  Much to her dismay, he began backing toward the door as if he couldn’t wait to make his escape. “I reckon I’ll mosey on over to the Golden Hind.”

  It hurt her that he wouldn’t want to stay, this being their last night together. But she would die rather than let him know how she felt. If he thought it more important to play cards, then let him. See if she cared!

  “You do that!” she said icily. “I have a lot to do myself tonight.”

  He glanced at Noel, who was lying on the bear robe. “If you want me to stay I will.”

  So now he’s feeling sorry for her. “Absolutely not!” she insisted, shooing him out the door. It seemed urgent that she get rid of him as quickly as possible. Before he guessed how much she dreaded the thought of leaving his house. Before he suspected how much he’d come to mean to her.

  She barely managed to close the door behind him before she burst into tears.

  What could be the matter with her? How
could she have such feelings? Her husband had been dead for only a few months. Less than eight months to be exact. No matter how much she regretted her marriage, she owned it to her son’s father to conduct herself in a way that was appropriate to his memory.

  For a recent widow to harbor thoughts about another man would be shocking by anyone’s standards. It shocked her clear down to her toes. Shocked her so much she dropped to her knees and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

  It was a very good thing that she was moving out of his house. Not that anything would happen if she stayed. His actions tonight made it perfectly clear that he was anxious to be rid of her. Not that she could blame him, poor man. Just look at how she and Noel had taken over his cabin!

  The man didn’t owe her a thing. Not a thing! She had absolutely no right to expect him to give up his socializing to sit home with her.

  Even if it was their last night together.

  Chapter 17

  Logan did not go to the Golden Hind or any of the other six saloons in town. He did the very thing his leg forbid him to do, he walked. He walked through the cold dark woods to the hills above Deadman’s Gulch. He gritted his teeth against the throbbing pain that began in his right knee and shot down his calf to his ankle. He walked until he limped so much, he could walk no longer.

  He lowered himself onto a fallen log and rubbed the affected area. Some time passed before he found to his astonishment he was rubbing his chest, not his leg. It was only after he realized the futility of trying to lessen the hurt centered in his chest that he pulled his hand away and concentrated on the physical pain in his leg, wishing he’d brought along his salve.

  The sounds of the night closed in around him. An animal stirred in the nearby bushes. Logan sniffed and recognized the scent of a fox, checking him out, no doubt, in return. At another time, in another place, the fox might have had good reason to fear him, but not tonight.

  From the distance came the unmistakable mating cry of a lone wolf: its long harrowing howl echoed through the hills. Logan wondered if he would ever again hear that familiar sound of winter without thinking of his own loss.

 
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