Margaret Brownley, page 17
The story seemed to delight her. She clasped her hands beneath her chin and learned toward him. “Did you ever finish counting the stars?”
He gazed at the stars in her eyes and decided there were only two stars worth counting. “Can’t remember,” he said vaguely.
“Oh, Logan, you must tell me more about these rendezvous.”
“There’s not a whole lot to tell. A rendezvous usually lasts several weeks. Believe me, that’s enough company to see a man through an entire year.”
After supper, they sat on the bearskin robe in front of the fireplace and talked about their childhoods.
Listening to her describe Boston, Logan grew relaxed and became mesmerized into a strange dreamlike state. The warmth of the room made him feel lethargic. His own cabin was always cold and drafty no matter what size fire he built.
Yes, he felt warm, strangely disoriented, so unlike himself. Suddenly he found himself talking about Catherine. Libby listened quietly as he spoke. He could only surmise by the sympathy in her eyes that she failed to understand the full circumstances of what he told her. “It was wrong of me to marry her,” he said.
“It was a very kind thing for you to do.”
He looked at her incredulously. “Had I not married her, she might still be alive.”
“You don’t know that for sure. I think that what the Indians did to her had more to do with her death than anything you might have done.”
Libby was wrong about that, he was sure. Had he been able to provide the kind of life Catherine had been used to, she would never have died. He was convinced of it. But what Libby said was comforting and he was willing to hold on to the thought, even if it was a lie. So grateful was he to her for lifting the burden of guilt from his shoulders, if only for a while, he didn’t even resent her talking about going home to Boston. He did, however, feel a sense of inner urgency to do something, say something.
“Marry me, Libby.” He voice was low, pressing, so different than his usual voice.
Libby’s mouth fell open and for several moments they sat staring at each other. “Why, Logan, I…”
She appeared stunned by his proposal, but no more than he was. The words had popped out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying. He sat up straight and stared at the fire. “I was only thinking of Noel,” he stammered. “It’s not right for the little fellow to go without a father.”
“That’s very kind of you,” she said. “There aren’t many men who would put a child’s welfare before his own.”
“There aren’t many men who have the opportunity to be present when a child enters the world.”
She lowered her eyes and blushed. “That’s rightly so, Logan.”
“I hope you don’t think I took advantage of your…ah…predicament.”
“I never thought that.”
“Naturally, I’d move to Boston with you.”
Libby smiled a sad smile. “You would hate Boston. Just as I hate…”
“You were going to say just as you hate the west, weren’t you?” She had never kept her feelings of California secret. That’s why it was so surprising that her honesty hit him like a blow.
“It just seems to take people and tear them apart. It’s not just the land, it’s everything. This gold fever. Look at the men in this town. McGuire, Keefer. Decent men with families back home. They came here with big dreams of striking it rich and returning home to their families. I wonder how many will ever see their families again.”
“It must have been difficult when your husband died.”
The look on her face told him he had sliced open a newly healed wound. “I kept thinking if only the banks hadn’t failed. If only Jeffrey hadn’t been bitten by the gold bug. If only I’d been a better wife…”
“Don’t!” He placed his hands over hers.
She met his eyes. “There had to be a reason that he thought the answer to his dreams could be found in the gold mines of this raw, untamed land.”
“I doubt that there was anything you could have done. I think men are born with the need to hunt, whether it be gold, beavers, or female companionship.”
She pulled her hand away. “Why do you suppose that is?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s nature’s way of keeping us from getting too settled, too set in our ways.”
“Maybe you’re right.” She bit her lower lip. “Logan …about your kind offer. I’m afraid I must decline.”
“I’m sorry. I had no right…” His gaze was riveted on her soft pink lips. “It was just a crazy idea.” His mouth felt dry. “I was only thinking of Noel.”
“Besides, I’m not the marrying kind.”
She nodded. “I thought as much.”
“And what do I know about raising a child?”
“I would say you know quite a bit.”
He stared at her in surprise. “Really?”
“It’s no easy task getting a baby to fall asleep, and you did so quite easily just a short time ago.”
He laughed. “I guess I rightly did.”
“Nor is it an easy matter to help during childbirth.”
“Well, now.” He beamed.
“But as for Boston.”
The smile left his face. “You’re right. If it’s anything like St. Louis.” He grimaced. “All those people--”
“There are many more people in Boston.”
“And all those buildings crowded together like a herd of cattle on a too small ranch.”
“It’s rather convenient that way. You only have to walk a short distance should you wish to call on a neighbor.”
“And I’d have to wear those city clothes.”
Libby’s gaze dropped to his buckskin shirt. “I can see where that would present a problem for you.”
“And since the west is no place to raise a child.”
Gaze centered on the cleft of his chin, she agreed. “No place at all.”
“Well, then, we agree. The whole idea of marriage was a crazy idea.”
“But well meaning,” she hastened to add.
“Oh, yes,” he agreed, “definitely well meaning.”
Later that night Logan stood alone in his cabin. Despite the roaring fire the room still seemed dark and dreary. What a fool he’d made of himself. The last thing he needed in his life was the responsibility of a wife and child.
Take care of your mother, his father had cautioned him all those years ago. At five years old it had been as easy promise to make and so difficult to keep. He’d never forgotten the horror, nor the feeling of helplessness he’d felt upon watching his Indian mother die at the hands of a white man.
He hadn’t been able to take care of his mother, nor for that matter, had he managed to care for his father or, later, his bride. He was hardly a protector in any sense of the word.
Now that his own future was in question, he needed to devote his full attention to the problem of surviving in the wilderness with a bad leg. His lack of speed and agility made him an easy target for bandits and Indians. Without his usual stamina something as simple as stalking a deer would be extremely difficult, if not altogether impossible.
But that was the least of his concerns. The cold dampness settled in his leg and the pain that resulted was enough to drive a man crazy. At times, the pain numbed his senses and slowed down his thought processes, putting him at ever greater risk.
Panning for gold was becoming increasingly more difficult. If he couldn’t even pan along a riverbank, how would he ever manage to walk waist deep in water to set his beaver traps?
Take away his means of support and he had nothing. Was nothing. He was a man with nothing to give a woman, let alone a child.
Why, then, did spending one evening with Libby make him think he could do something he had no business doing? Be somebody he was never meant to be?
Well, it wouldn’t happen again. Not ever. He was a trapper, a man of the mountains, and come spring he’d be heading north where he belonged, f
It was still dark the following morning when Logan was stirred awake. He sat up and rubbed his eyes. It took a moment for him to put a name to the infernal hammering that burst through the cracks of his cabin like a hundred charges of exploding gunpowder. He fought his way from beneath the covers, quickly pulled his pants over his long johns, and charged outside. Even with Noel gone, it was getting so a man couldn’t sleep anymore.
He looked to the end of the street where a large bonfire had been built to illuminate the area. There was so much activity that at first Logan thought gold had been discovered right at the edge of town.
But a closer observation made it clear that the lumber wasn’t being used to build a sluice or even a flume. Before his startled eyes, the frame of a building was hauled upright, reaching higher than any other building in town and pretty much level with the surrounding treetops.
It didn’t seem possible. The very same men who had, in the past, resisted any labor that didn’t promise the wealth of gold, and who had been all too happy to rely on canvas nailed to the crudest frames possible for shelter, were suddenly as industrious as a colony of beavers. First building Libby’s house. Now this.
He hobbled down the street on his still stiff leg, waving his hands and yelling to be heard over the infernal racket of hammers and saws. “Would someone mind telling me what’s going on?”
McGuire heaved a plank over his shoulder, calling out in a voice that struck Logan as more indecent than cheerful given the ungodly hour. “Morning, Logan”
Logan growled back in a voice he deemed more suited to the occasion. “It’s more like the middle of the night. The sun’s not up yet.”
“We wanted to get an early start.”
“I would say you accomplished that, all right. Now would you mind telling me what this monstrosity is doing in the middle of the street?”
“This is our new church.”
Logan couldn’t have been more astonished if they had said they were building a king’s palace. “A church. You’re building a church? Here? What do you want to go and do that for?”
Sharkey looked surprised by the question. “Got to build a church so the little one can have hisself a proper baptism.”
Logan gritted his teeth. He should have known that this latest madness would have something to do with Libby. “Did anyone tell you that it takes more than a church before you can have a proper baptism? It takes a preacher and--”
“Now don’t you go a-worryin’ your head about nothin’,” Sharkey interjected. “Why ol’ Genesis over there was a preacher before he was a miner.”
Logan glanced up at the bearded man who was clinging precariously to a high beam of the church. “Is that so?”
The man named Genesis waved a hammer. “I know the Bible better than I know my own hand,” Genesis explained.
“I guess that makes you the right man for the job,” Logan said.
“Either grab yourself a hammer or step aside,” Big Sam barked. He threw down a plank of lumber, barely missing Logan’s bare foot by an inch.
Logan looked from miner to miner, shook his head, and left. The whole blinking town was going plumb crazy. No doubt about it.
Libby stood in front of the newly-built church, Noel in her arms. The church was enormous, clearly the largest building in town, with a fine pointed steeple, weatherproof doors, and redwood logs that had been sawed in half for pews.
It snowed off and on during the second week of February, keeping the diggings buried and the men in town. For the most part, the hammering and sawing continued during each break in the weather. In between times, large sheets of canvas were spread over the lumber to protect it from the elements.
The sun broke through the clouds minutes after Big Sam announced that the church was officially complete. Applause greeted the news, and the miners slapped each other on the back. McGuire pulled out his mouth organ and played “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Big Sam and Sharkey waltzed together in the street. Sharkey batted his eyelashes, imitating a woman.
Logan walked over and Libby smiled at him. “Did you ever see anything more beautiful in your life?”
His gaze remained fixed on her. “Never.”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet, Miz Libby,” Big Sam said, gyrating past them. “As soon as the paint comes from Sacramento City, we’ll finish it up, right and proper.”
Sharkey twirled in front of them. “Hap sent a mule pack into Centreville to pick up supplies. He should be back t’day or t’morrow, dependin’ on how bad the trails are.” He batted his eyelashes before spinning away.
Logan scratched his temple. “I don’t believe it. It’s almost noon and Sharkey’s still standing.”
“Nothing makes a man stand more upright than to do the work of the Lord,” Libby said, gazing up at the steeple.
McGuire pocketed his mouth organ. “Ah think this calls for a celebration.”
His suggestion was met with thunderous approval and the men headed toward the Golden Hind.
Logan remained behind. He ran a knuckle down Noel’s chubby red cheek. Noel turned his head in Logan’s direction, making little sucking noises. “I guess this little fellow is going to have himself a baptism.”
Libby smiled. “He is at that.”
They both started talking at once.
“You go first,” Logan said.
“I wanted to ask you a favor,” she said.
“Ask me anything you want.”
She hesitated. “You’re going to think this is rather foolish.”
“Nothing you say…I mean I won’t think it’s foolish. I’d never think that.”
She felt her cheeks grow warm. “Well, if you insist. I wondered if you will come when I present Noel to the Lord.”
Logan lifted his hat and ran his fingers though his hair. “I’m not much for church…I mean, I’ve never been…”
She laid her hand on his arm. “I was hoping you would come. Please, Logan. Actually, I was hoping you would consider being Noel’s godfather.”
He stared at her incredulously. “A godfather? Me?”
She nodded. “It seems only fitting. You were the one who helped Noel into the world. You were the first one to hold him.”
“Well, now, when you put it that way….It does seem fitting that I be… Noel’s—what did you call it?—godfather? What…what do I have to do?”
“Nothing, unless something happens to me. Then you would have to raise him. Not that anything is going to happen to me, of course, but just in case.”
He stared at her. “When you say r-raise him? You mean like…a real father?”
“More like a spiritual father. You have to make certain he stays on God’s path.”
He frowned. “That sounds like a big responsibility.”
“If you’d rather not be his godfather I understand,” she said.
“I didn’t say that. It’s just I have to get ready.”
“I won’t know what path Noel needs to follow if I don’t study the map.”
She blinked. “What map?”
“Why the map in the Good Book. There is a map of the path there, right?”
She tried to think how to explain. “It’s not actually a map. It’s more of a list of dos and don’ts.”
“Commandments. And a Golden Rule.”
“You mean there’re even rules for gold panning?”
“No, no, nothing like that. I mean…not exactly. The golden rule means to do until others as you wish them to do until you.”
“Well now. That sounds like something I can teach the boy. Come to think of it that’s something us mountain men believe in. We don’t call it a golden rule. We just call it plain common sense.
She looked ever so pleased. “If you like, you can borrow my Bible.”
“I guess I better,” he said. “If I’m going to be Noel’s godfather I better find out what else he’s gotta learn.”
Preacher Genesis lived in a canvas tent just outside of town. A short, compact man with a bald spot the size of a half-dollar, he peered at Logan through metal-framed spectacles. Seemingly delighted to have a visitor, the preacher pumped Logan’s hand as if to force the last drop of water from a dried-up well, and invited him inside.
“You’re the first visitor I’ve had since coming to California,” Genesis explained. “Back home, people dropped in all the times. If someone got engaged or had a baby, they told me first.” His mind seemed to wander for a moment, but he soon caught himself and, apologizing profusely for his lack of manners, promptly cleared a pile of clothes off a wooden candle crate so that Logan could sit down.
Satisfied that he’d met his guest’s immediate needs, the preacher drew up another crate and sat opposite him. “What brings you here?”
Logan placed his fur hat on one knee. “I came to ask you some questions.” He hesitated. This was all so new to him. “They’re of a religious nature.”
“In that case you’ve come to the right place.”
Logan was relieved to hear this. “Libby asked me to be Noel’s godfather.”
“That’s quite an honor.”
Logan leaned forward with knitted brow. “It’s not too much of an honor, is it?”
The preacher scratched his bald spot. “What do you mean, too much?”
“It’s just that the name godfather…it sounds rather high falutin’.”
“Hmmm. Never thought of it that way.”
“Do I have to go around acting like…” Logan lifted his eyes skyward.
“No, no, no, nothing like that.”
“I can still live my normal life and be a godfather?”
The preacher gave this a moment of thoughtful consideration before replying. “It’s hard to say. There’s living a life man’s way and then there’s living a life the way God intended. You know what I mean?”