Margaret Brownley, page 2
Stunned by the thought of a woman in Deadman’s Gulch, he touched her forehead, his fingers trailing down her cool yet silky skin to the slight pulse at her neck. His finely tuned fingertips told him that she was barely clinging to life. Her flesh was colder than any human flesh should be. It was no trick.
Without further hesitation, he scooped the woman up in his arms and carried her inside, kicking the door shut behind him.
He laid her gently on the thick bear robe spread out in front of the stone fireplace. He had already banked the fire for the night and though the grate glowed with red-hot embers, the room had grown noticeably colder. Hunching down, Logan tossed in some dry kindling and added another log. In seconds, bright flames tongued upward and sparks began to crackle and fly, landing upon the brick hearth like red glowing stars.
He then devoted his full attention to the woman. Not even the splattering of mud on her fine pale face detracted from her delicate features. Long lashes fanned across the soft curves of her cheeks. Her wet hair was a soft brown, tumbling about her shoulders in tangled curls. She looked so pale in the soft glow of fire he feared he’d already lost her.
With two fingers, he once again checked her pulse and was alarmed to find it had dropped another beat or two. It would take quick action to save her. He glanced at her sopping wet clothes and frowned at the red bloodstain on her shoulder.
Reaching for his leather sheath that hung from the back of a chair, he pulled out his skinning knife. He inserted the tip of the blade beneath the high neckline of her wet garment and, with a flick of his wrist, sliced the thin fabric away from her shoulder as easily as he skinned a rabbit.
He examined the wound with a practiced eye. Unless he missed his guess, she’d been grazed by a bullet. Fortunately, the wound was only superficial. He was more concerned about the temperature of her skin than the wound. Indeed, her lips appeared to be turning purple.
He peeled the remainder of the wet dress off her and tossed it aside, leaving her petticoat and pantaloons intact. Startled by the thickness of her waist he froze. Between the dimly lit room and his haste to save her, he had at first failed to notice what was now astoundingly obvious: she was with child.
He didn’t know much about such matters, but enough to guess she was pretty far along. He had been shot at more times than he cared to remember, had fought off grizzlies, mountain lions and malaria, but nothing had scared him more than the sight of that swollen belly.
Not wanting to upset the apple cart—or start labor—he moved slowly, gingerly. He wrapped her in an Indian blanket and moved her closer to the fire, drawing the edge of the bear rug over her.
“You’ll be fine,” he murmured softly. “Just as soon as we get you warm.” There was no indication that she heard him, but he kept talking to her, just the same. It was important to try to reach her, to pull her back to consciousness.
The blue of her lips gradually faded away and her cheeks grow pink. Now that the immediate danger had passed, he deemed it safe to take care of her shoulder wound.
Grabbing his emergency supplies from the buckskin bag called a possible bag, he set to work dressing her wound. He cleansed her shoulder with alcohol before applying a small patch of beaver fur. A touch of sticky resin collected fresh that very day from the weepy trunk of a cypress held the fur in place and provided a seal against infection.
She needed something warm to wear. He glanced around the room, his gaze falling upon one of his buckskin shirts that hung from a wooden peg. He quickly grabbed it and worked it over her head and arms. It was far too big for her, but it would help to keep in her body heat. Only when she was decently covered did he pull off her damp under garments, careful to keep her modesty intact.
He then wrapped her again in the tightly woven Indian blanket, the only man-made blanket he deemed warm enough.
A quick check of her pulse confirmed that her breathing was normal, but she still trembled slightly beneath his touch.
Sucking in his breath, he picked her up in his arms and carried her to his pallet. He laid her on the pelts of beaver and fox that made up the mattress, taking the utmost care not to jostle her more than necessary. Covering her with a buffalo robe, he then brushed her still damp hair away from her forehead.
Her eyes remained closed but a shadow touched her delicate brow, telling him that subconsciously she could feel his hand. It was an encouraging sign. He ran the knuckle of his finger across her velvety soft cheek. On impulse he leaned over and touched his lips to hers to check the temperature of her skin. The lips were more sensitive to the touch than fingers, enabling him to better monitor her condition. That’s all he meant to do—check her body heat. Therefore, he was totally unprepared for the jolt that followed the touch of his lips to hers.
He pulled back as if he were burned and caught his breath. After a moment he shook his head. It had been a long day and he was bone-weary tired. Was it any wonder he imagined things?
Straightening, he extinguished the oil lantern on the table by the bed. His way lit only by the soft burning fire, he reached for a bedroll and since the bearskin robe was still damp from her body, he spread his roll out on the hard dirt floor.
He pulled off his moccasins and stripped to his long johns, then settled himself down for the night. He never had trouble sleeping until he moved indoors. Had, on occasion, slept on hard rock, in mountain caves, and on the saddle. Once, while being tracked by a band of unfriendly Indians, he’d been forced to sleep inside a stick and mud beaver lodge. But tonight he couldn’t seem to find a comfortable position. The chilling dampness in the air cut clear to the bones.
His leg had been mangled by a grizzly bear when he was fifteen. At first the injury was barely noticeable, but it had grown progressively worse in recent years. Knowing that he could never survive another winter in the wild, he was forced to seek shelter in this makeshift shack, one of many in the area.
He didn’t dare admit, even to himself, that his chances of returning to the wilderness looked grim. If he couldn’t continue his life as a free trapper, he had nothing. That was the only life he knew. The only life, for that matter, that he had ever wanted.
It had been difficult to learn to sleep inside a shelter. He was not accustomed to sleeping in closed quarters, with a roof over his head, unable to monitor the safety of his surroundings. No owl could be heard to signal a change in the weather. Nor was he able to detect the sound of creaking boughs or rustle of branches. The still air inside the wooden dwelling offered no changing scents to tell him what animals crept near, or to warn him if, by chance, a man hid in the darkness.
Any foreshadowing of danger was denied him, and he decided it took a great deal of faith, not to mention courage, to sleep soundly inside a man-made dwelling.
Still, as he lay there it occurred to him that the woman’s presence was comforting and soothing in a way that both surprised and puzzled him. He soon abandoned his efforts to monitor outside for possible dangers. It was far more pleasant to concentrate on his guest. He listened to her soft breathing and it stunned him to think he’d never actually listened to a woman sleep.
As the heat of her body became trapped beneath the covers, he grew more aware of the faint sweet fragrance of her warming skin. The skills he’d perfected through the years as a matter of survival served him well in tracking her recovery.
There was really no reason to climb out of his warm bedroll and check on her. No reason at all to subject his already painful leg to the cold night air. Yet, he couldn’t seem to help himself. And so, throughout the seemingly endless night that followed, he made numerous trips to her side.
His leg grew progressively stiffer with each passing hour, until, at last, he was forced to hobble. But neither the piercing leg pains nor biting cold air diminished his satisfaction upon feeling her forehead or touching his knuckles to her now warm cheeks.
Who was she? He wondered. Where did she come from? And why, with all the man-made structures in town, had she found her way to his?
She was dead. It was the only explanation that would explain the feeling of weightlessness Libby felt upon opening her eyes to the strange, unfamiliar surroundings.
Afraid to move, she let her gaze roam freely about the small, cluttered room. The word coffin came to mind as she stared up at the low wood ceiling. The room had no windows and only a single door.
Pieces of canvas were stuffed between the roughhewn planks that made up all four walls. Even so, cold air blew through the cracks, and glimpses of the dull cloudy sky could be seen through tiny openings in the roof. The one bright spot in the room was the orange glow from the slow-burning fire.
Little by little, her senses awakened. She smelled burning cedar and coffee. It was the latter that convinced her that perhaps she was only half-dead.
A flutter at her side just below the waist, a tiny movement of hand or foot, and the events of the past began to come back.
She turned her thoughts inward; the precious life she carried was now letting its presence be known in the most comforting way possible. Relief flooded through her, followed quickly by a sense of urgency. She couldn’t stay here; it was imperative that she reached Centreville before the way was blocked by snow.
Her head felt heavy as a lead ball as she lifted it from the pillow and pushed the covers aside. Moving with uncharacteristic caution, she inched her legs across the fur that lay in valley and peaks beneath her. She felt stiff, disjointed, so unlike herself.
Her feet firmly in place on the fur rug, she pushed forward. Standing upright, she stared down in astonishment at her clothing.
Cripes! She was dressed like an Indian!
She ran her hand along the soft deerskin tunic that fell loosely from her shoulders. It was far too big for her, even with her swollen belly. The shoulder seams fell halfway down her arm, the fringe at the cuffs reached beyond her fingertips.
She straightened and although the bulk of her abdomen prevented her from seeing her toes or even her feet it was clear to her that the fringe at the hem barely covered her knees. She added indecent exposure to the growing list of things to worry about.
Not that there was anyone around to see her bare legs. But the room was rather masculine. Extremely masculine. It was the sort of room that made a woman think twice before exposing her limbs or anything else for that matter.
She tried to remember how she got there. She recalled running down a dark street. Remembered feeling fear and panic—desperation. Then something strange happened; a vision of warmth and softness washed over her.
Where was she? Whose cabin was this? Her parched mouth soon took precedence over curiosity. She needed a drink of water.
The room began to spin. Planting her hands firmly on the whiskey barrel that served as a table next to the bed, she waited for the dizziness to pass before venturing to the part of the room that served as a kitchen.
She found a bucket of water and ladled some into a tin cup. The water was fresh and tasted cool and sweet in her mouth. Drinking her fill, she took in her surroundings with renewed interest.
The single room of the cabin was no more than ten feet by twenty feet long. A large stone fireplace dominated one wall. A crude wooden table flanked by two birch wood chairs served as the only barrier between the kitchen and the rest of the living quarters. A bearskin was centered in the middle of the dirt floor.
Her gaze lingered on the dark fur rug for a moment before she perused the rest of the room.
Without warning, the door flew open revealing a tall bearded man holding a blood-covered knife. Once again she feared for her life.
Logan St. John gave the woman a quick once-over, surprised to see her on her feet. “What are you doing out of bed?”
His voice was rough, sharp, a deep bass designed for wild towns and rugged country, not for polite society. He was a loner, not used to having company. Not since…
The name that came to mind startled him. Silently, he cursed the woman. How dare she intrude into his life? Making him remember things he didn’t want to remember, think thoughts no man should have to think. The sooner the woman had recovered and was on her way, the sooner he could forget the past and concentrate on getting his leg back to normal so he could head up north to set his traps before it was too late.
He slammed the door shut behind him. It was already too late! Winter was the time to trap beavers when furs were thick and colors rich. That’s when they brought the best prices.
Apparently thinking the anger on his face was directed at her, the woman shrank back, pressing herself against the cook stove.
He limped toward her and stopped in front of the table. His eyes quickly adjusted to the dim light inside the cabin. Seeing her clearly now, he was ill-prepared for the fetching way his fringed buckskin shirt looked on her. He let his startled gaze drop to the unlaced neckline that had fallen in such a way as to reveal one arresting white shoulder. The shirt was large enough to hide the fullness of her waist and short enough to reveal her bare legs and feet.
Gasping softly she tugged at the sleeve and pulled it back over her shoulder, but her attempts at modesty only went so far. And hard as she tried, there was nothing much she could do about her lower limbs.
He was sorely tempted to throw a blanket around her, cover her up so he didn’t have to be subjected to so much feminine flesh, but she was so wide-eyed with fear, he thought it best to avoid any sudden movement on his part that might further alarm her.
“You’d better lie down,” he said. He gave a curt nod toward the pallet and concentrated on keeping his gaze riveted to the relative safety of her beguiling face. But she wasn’t making it easy.
“I…I have no intention of lying down.” Her pale lips trembled as she spoke.
“Suit yourself.” If she didn’t lie down she would probably fall down and that might make the baby come. The thought sent cold shivers down his spine. That was the last thing he needed.
He took a step backward thinking she’d relax with more distance between them. He suddenly realized he was holding his Green River knife, its blade dripping with fresh blood from the rabbit he skinned for supper.
No wonder the poor woman was half out of her wits with fear. “Supper,” he said by way of explanation. He set his knife down by a wash basin and he sensed rather than saw her relief. “I’ll make you a bite to eat.”
Lifting her chin, she stood ramrod-straight as if intending to make the most of her five-foot-four-height. “I’m quite capable of taking care of myself.”
His gaze dropped to her waist, or at least to the area that one would normally expect to find a waist. “I can see that,” he said lightly.
Anger flared on her face. “For your information, my name is Libby Summerfield. Mrs. Libby Summerfield.”
She was married? If that was true then where was her husband? “If you’re a married woman than I reckon you won’t have any trouble taking orders.”
She narrowed her eyes. Now that he no longer carried a knife she’d grown downright militant. “I don’t take orders!”
“I guess that explains your present predicament.”
“It explains nothing of the sort!” she retorted. “Now if you would be kind enough to give me back my own clothes. I have a stage to catch.”
He scratched his head “I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the stage left over an hour ago.”
“An hour…” She swayed lightly and he reached out to steady her. She slapped away his hand. “Don’t touch me!”
He was startled by her outburst. Her fragile appearance was deceiving. “I won’t hurt you.”
The woman remained stubbornly in place while he debated how best to convince her to lie down. He wasn’t used to bargaining, especially with a woman. Normally, he wouldn’t be all that tempted to do so now. But given the woman’s circumstances, he was willing to allow her some leeway. Long as she didn’t move around or shake up her innards the baby should stay right where he or she was supposed to. At least he hoped
“I’ll give you exactly thirty seconds to get back in that bed or…”
“Or what?” she squeaked out, her bold blue-green eyes making up for any failure of voice.
Finding her open defiance surprising, if not altogether disconcerting, he clenched his fists. Why was she challenging him? He might be going about it all wrong, but he only wanted what was best for her.
“I’ll put you there myself.” When his warning drew no more than a reproachful glare, he began counting. “One…”
It amused him to watch her act so nonchalantly. His height alone made him an imposing figure.
She never as much as flinched.
“Twelve…” Fool of a woman. Why couldn’t she just climb back into bed? He kept counting, hoping she would accept the inevitable. “Twenty-seven…”
He never had a chance to get to the final count—whatever that might have been— for she practically swooned before his very eyes. Intent on grabbing her before she reached the ground, he pushed a chair out of his way and lunged forward.
She moved with a speed of a wild animal. Grabbing the Green River knife she raised it over her head, its lethal blade pointed straight at him.
He stopped mid step, flabbergasted. How was it possible for someone to recover so quickly? Gathering his wits, he tried another tactic. “Is this the thanks I get for giving you shelter?”
The knife lowered. “This is your cabin?”
He scowled. What a nuisance she was turning out to be. It riled him that she had him over a barrel. If she were a man, she’d be flat on the floor by now and thinking twice about ever trying to get the best of him again. But a woman, especially one with child… how was a man supposed to defend himself against such a combination?
“I think you’d better put the knife down.” He held his hands out, palms up. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“And I don’t want to hurt you,” the woman countered.
He almost laughed aloud. Did she really think that a possibility? “I’m mighty relieved to find we’re in accord.”