Margaret Brownley, page 23
In a softer voice she said, “I’m leaving soon. Going back to Boston. It’s not a good idea for us to—”
“I know.” He gave a curt nod, spun around and walked into his cabin.
It was at the moment that she knew pretense was no longer possible. Their feelings for one another must be fought against, but they could no longer be denied.
By early March, the road to Sacramento City was open but the stagecoach had still not resumed its run. Mule packs and wagons filled with supplies and dry goods began arriving in town. Windowpanes and buckets of whitewash were among the first things to arrive, along with Sharkey’s up and down barber chair.
The latter caused a great commotion in the town as the miners lined up to take turns riding on the chair. Sharkey was so proud of his chair that he showed rare patience in allowing the men to take advantage of his generosity. But he soon grew weary of the endless lines outside his door.
Finally, he resorted to his usual business tactics. “If you wanna try out the chair, you have to pay for a haircut first. It’s only fair.”
The men complained, but they paid Sharkey to cut their hair whether or not a haircut was needed. No price was too high as long as they could try out the remarkable chair.
As the supplies continued to arrive, the miners set to work finishing up the town. The canvas was pulled off Libby’s windows and replaced with glass. The uneven panes were riddled with blemishes and other imperfections that distorted the view, but enough sun filtered through the mottled glass to fill her front room with light and warmth.
Libby was delighted with her new windows and Noel seemed to enjoy the natural light every bit as much as she did. He gazed at the sunbeam and watched the tiny dust particles dance above his head.
Meanwhile, the miners whitewashed the church until it gleamed like a large white jewel. They then began to work on the wooden buildings along Main Street until one by one each business had a fresh new coat of paint.
Libby found Hap Montana standing in front of his sparkling white general store. He fingered his suspenders and looked unbearably smug. “Wouldn’t you say the whitewash makes a difference?”
“Indeed I would,” she agreed, stepping out of the way so that members of the Sign Brigade, as they now called themselves, could pass, hauling the sign for the assay office over their heads.
While two or three members of the Sign Brigade stood on the roof adjusting the sign and nailing it in place, a crowd of miners stood below shouting instructions.
The loud voices were still ringing in Libby’s ear as she followed Hap into the general store. Hap offered to hold Noel while she made her purchases and she was all too happy to let him. Noel was growing so rapidly, her arms ached at the end of each day from carrying him.
“Look what I have for you,” Hap said. He indicated a wooden crate. “Baking soda.”
Libby already had more baking soda than she could ever hope to use in a lifetime, but not wanting to hurt his feelings, she thanked him. If nothing else, she could make a table out of the sturdy wood box.
Hap agreed to deliver her purchases after closing hours. Thanking him, Libby walked the short distance back home.
In front of Logan’s cabin, Jim Bridger snorted softly, and scraped the ground with a hoof before lowering his head to nuzzle the scattering of hay at his feet. As far as Libby knew, Logan hadn’t ridden his horse in days. Indeed, he hadn’t left his cabin except to feed the horse and fill the nearby trough with fresh water.
Was he ill? She decided to make it her business to find out.
Cradling Noel in her arms, she made her way to his front door and knocked.
His voice sounded muffled and distant. “Go away!”
“It’s me, Libby,” she called, pressing an ear against the door.
A short silence followed before he spoke again, this time his voice less gruff. “I’m busy. Come back another time.”
She stared at the closed door. Busy doing what? Propriety demanded that she take him at his word, but she’d long since learned to play by less rigid rules than the ones dictated by Boston society. So, it was in grand western style that she reached for the door handle and stormed inside.
Logan was sitting on the floor, his bared leg extended over a steaming black kettle. His face was twisted in agony as he stared up at her, but whether from pain or hurtful pride, she couldn’t tell.
“I hope you’re satisfied,” he said curtly.
She closed the door behind her and placed Noel on the bear robe far enough from the fire for safety’s sake. “I haven’t seen you in days. I was worried.”
“As you can see, there’s nothing to worry about. Now if you would kindly leave me in peace.…”
The leg looked anything but fine. Closer observation revealed that the leg was uncommonly red and the knee swollen to twice its normal size. It angered her that he stubbornly refused to acknowledge how bad his leg really was.
Feeling her own stubbornness come to the fore she snapped her head around and confronted him. “It doesn’t look fine,” she snapped. “It looks dreadful.”
His face darkened with fury. “You know nothing about it,” he shouted.
“Is that so?” she shouted back. “Well, if your leg is fine, what are you doing huddled over this ridiculous kettle!”
“All right, drat! The leg’s not fine. Are you happy now?”
Knowing how hard it must have been for him to finally admit the truth, she was tempted to take him in her arms. But this was no time to show sympathy or compassion. She’d tried such approaches in the past and neither one had worked.
She glared at him. “If your leg is giving you trouble, then why don’t you do something about it!”
“What do you think I’m doing?”
She sniffed contemptuously. “You think a little steam is going to help that leg? Ha! And you think you know so much!”
“Since obviously you’re such an expert in these matters, suppose you tell me what I should do!”
“What you need is a full soaking in hot water.”
He curled his lip back. “How do you suggest I do that?”
She straightened. “I’ll show you how!” With that she dashed out of Logan’s cabin and raced across the street to her own front porch. She lifted the wash tub used for her own bath and hauled it across the street. With no small amount of difficulty, she lugged the tub through Logan’s narrow door.
Logan seemed to take some satisfaction in watching her struggle. He folded his arms across his chest and gave a disparaging frown. “If you think I’m going to sit in that, you’d better think again.”
She intentionally ignored him as she emptied a bucket of cold water into the tub and then reached for the steaming kettle. It took eight more kettles of hot water before there was sufficient water in the tub to adequately cover him. He said nothing as she worked. Indeed, ignored her. It took an additional kettle of cold water before the bath was ready.
“Take your clothes off,” she commanded.
“I will not!”
“Why are you so stubborn?”
“I am not stubborn!” he said stubbornly. And then, “Do you have any idea how much it’s going to hurt to get into that thing?”
She almost relented and softened her stance. But she knew that would be a mistake. She picked up the skillet and held it over his knee. “Do you know how much it’s going to hurt when I drop this thing on your leg?”
He looked up at her aghast. “You wouldn’t!”
“Don’t tempt me,” she said.
For several long moments they stared at each other like two foes waiting for the other to make the first move. Suddenly the hard lines on his face softened and he surprised her by bursting into laughter. “Well, now, Libby,” he sputtered between guffaws. “You always were good at getting me into hot water.”
She lowered the skillet and tried to suppress a giggle. But the warm sound of
She almost choked on her mirth, however, when he pulled his buckskin shirt over his head and tossed it aside. The sight of his bare chest brought a blush to her face, and she quickly averted her eyes. “I’ll be back later,” she said hoarsely.
Confused, she looked up. He was watching her with bright blazing eyes and she couldn’t help but wonder if he was enjoying her discomfort. “I might need help.”
“Very well,” she spoke primly, casting a starched even look at him. But there was nothing prudish or even proper at the way her heart was beating against her ribs. She backed away from him. “I’ll wait over here.” She knelt down on the bearskin next to Noel, who was still sound asleep, and kept her back toward Logan.
“You can look,” Logan said after a few minutes.
Her heart galloped faster than a runaway horse. “I wouldn’t think of invading your privacy.”
“It never bothered you before.”
She chanced a glance over her shoulder, relieved to find that only shoulders were exposed above the rim of the tub. Already she could see the tense lines at his brow begin to fade.
He leaned his back against the rim of the tub and sighed. “You’re right, Libby. The hot water helps.”
Her earlier embarrassment forgotten, she filled the kettle with fresh water and hung it over the fire to heat. “I think you should have a doctor look at that leg.”
“I did have a doctor look at it.”
Surprised, she turned to face him. “Oh? What did he say?”
“He told me to stay out of saddles, cold weather and cold streams.”
“And why haven’t you done what he said?”
“Because those are the things I have to do to survive.”
Later, after he was dressed with his leg propped, she ventured to ask him his plans for the future.
He gave her an odd look. “I’m going to do what I’ve always done.”
“And if you leg doesn’t heal?”
“I’m a trapper, Libby. I don’t know anything else.”
Every day for the next week, Libby arrived at Logan’s house promptly at noon to fill the tub with hot water. He fought her every step of the way until she looked ready to throttle him. She called him stubborn and pigheaded; he called her overbearing and pushy.
The arguments were necessary and on some level he understood this. If they weren’t yelling at each other and calling each other names he would be tempted to say the things in his heart. That he could not do because she was going back to Boston and he was heading north.
And so he waged a verbal war that was, in reality, an emotional war fought privately every moment he was with her.
Every moment they were apart.
The hot baths helped his leg, but after a week of fighting his feelings for Libby, he grew restless and irritable.
The swelling of his knee had gone down and that had to be a positive sign. If only the pain in his heart would go away.
Late that Friday afternoon in mid-March, he could no longer stand the lonely cabin and so he limped outside to take a walk. The sky was clear but it was cold so he soon hobbled back to the cabin.
He was surprised to find several men gathered in front of his place.
Sharkey spotted him first. “Hey there, Logan. We were lookin’ for yer. We have somethin’ i’portant to talk to you ‘bout. Don’t we, boys?”
Logan couldn’t imagine what was on their minds. “So talk.”
Big Sam stepped forward and flashed his wide grin. “The boys and me are just about finished with the town.”
“Yep,” Sharkey concurred. “Our places are all spruced up.”
“It’s about time,” Logan growled. “Now maybe a man can get himself some uninterrupted sleep.”
Sharkey glanced at the others before he continued. “We have only one eyesore left.”
Logan looked up one side of the street and down the other. Every last building and every last fence and every last hitching post glistened beneath a coat of fresh paint. Somebody had even gone overboard and painted a rock that rested by the side of the dirt road. “I don’t see any eyesore.”
“We were referrin’ to your diggin’s here,” Sharkey said.
Logan stepped back. He was so astonished, he forgot to favor his leg and he immediately suffered the consequences. Growling beneath his breath, he rested his hand against a tree and shifted his weight. “My diggings? What’s wrong with my diggings?”
Big Sam pointed to the dreary shack in question. “It gives the town a bad name. Isn’t that right, boys?”
“I’m not allowing my house to become all sissified, and that’s final.”
McGuire, ever the diplomat, took charge. “Now before ya go getting’ yaself all in a stew, Ah think ya ought to consider something very seriously. Ya’re a godfather, ain’t that right?”
Logan frowned. “I don’t see that one has anything to do with the other.”
“Now hear me out,” McGuire said. “Look what’s right across the street. Ya little godson. And when he looks out his bright new shinin’ windows, what does he see? Does he see a town he can be proud of? Or does he see an eyesore?”
“He sees an eyesore!” the men yelled in unison.
Logan considered this. Preacher Genesis hadn’t said anything about a godfather having to fix up his house. He started toward his porch. “I don’t have time for this foolishness.”
McGuire stayed him. “Ya won’t have ta worry about a thing. Will he, boys?”
“Not a thing,” Big Sam agreed.
McGuire slapped Logan on the back. “Ya just give us the word and we’ll take it from there.”
Logan was torn between doing right by the boy and protecting his privacy. Finally, he relented, but mostly because he was outnumbered. “Not too sissified,” he warned.
“Wouldn’t think of it. Would we, boys?”
“And none of those calico curtains.”
McGuire looked less confident about promising this. “You’ll have to take that up with Libby.”
Forcing aside his reservations, Logan limped back into the house and slammed the door shut behind him. He told himself it would only be a temporary inconvenience. Besides, winter was about over. Just as soon as the ache in his leg subsided, he’d head up north to beaver country. He had traps to set.
First-class pelts or plews, as mountain men called them, were still in demand, perhaps because of the dwindling supply. Most trappers had headed for the gold fields leaving the field wide open for those left behind.
Word was that the north had never known such cold weather and bitter storms. This was good news as far as Logan was concerned. It might be May before beavers began to shed their winter coats. With any sort of luck, he might still be able to get enough pelts to see him through the summer. Maybe not prime pelts, but good enough to sell.
But that meant he’d have to leave sooner than expected, regardless of his still ailing leg. The truth was that if he hoped to trap any beavers worth something, he’d have to leave no later than early April. That was only two weeks away.
Meanwhile, the least a godfather could do was to see that his godchild had himself a decent view.
During the next three days, Logan’s shack was practically rebuilt from the ground up. The miners cut out two square holes for windows, one on either side of his front door, before anyone thought to ask Hap about the availability of window glass. When it turned out that Hap’s supplies were depleted, Logan pretty near froze to death until canvas sheets were stretched across the frames and nailed in place.
Big Sam built flower boxes and matching shutters for the windows. Sharkey and Beaker tore down the porch and replaced it with one that didn’t sag. New roof and paint completed the job.
Logan stood in front of his house and demanded to know why they painted it yellow. “Of all the sissified colors. It looks lik
“We ran outta whitewash,” Sharkey explained.
Logan was still staring at the house several minutes later when Libby walked out of her front door carrying Noel. “It’s lovely,” she called to him. She hurried across the street to join him. “What do you think, Noel? Did you ever see a prettier house in all your born days?” She held Noel up so he could see.
Logan gazed at her pink cheeks and lips. “Do you really like it?”
“Absolutely. Now all you need are some calico curtains.”
“Calico curtains would be nice.”
“And flowers in your flower boxes.”
“I don’t know anything about planting flowers.”
“If you’d like, I’d be happy to plant them for you,” she said.
“That’s mighty thoughtful of you.”
She glanced at his leg. “Would it be too much trouble for you to hold Noel while I fetch my gardening gloves and spade?”
“No trouble at all.”
“He’s getting heavy.”
He took Noel in his arms and bounced him up and down. “Indeed he is.”
“I won’t be but a minute,” she said.
“Take your time. My leg is much better.” It still hurt, but he had no intention of letting on how much.
“The hot baths must have helped.” She blushed prettily and dashed back to the house, her skirts all aflutter, hair flying in every direction. He couldn’t take his eyes off her until she had disappeared into the house. He lowered his head and buried his nose next to Noel’s sweet-smelling skin.
Noel delighted him with a dimpled smile that lit up his chubby round face. “Well, now…” Logan chuckled.
Libby came out of the house and hurried toward them, her face set with a sense of purpose. “I brought some cuttings from my garden,” she said. “Poppies and lupines. I never thought I would become an expert on wildflowers.”
“Don’t they have wildflowers in Boston?’
“Not really. Unless you drive out into the country.” She gave him a quick smile and set to work planting the flowers. She chattered freely as she filled the window boxes with soil.
It was her way to talk incessantly when she was anxious or fearful. That’s how he knew his presence was affecting her, by her nonstop chatter. Just as her presence was affecting him.