Margaret Brownley, page 25
Fearing the men would return, she waited until the sound of horses’ hooves had faded in the distance, then quickly wheeled Noel home. She didn’t breathe easy until she had carried him inside and firmly bolted the door.
In the hours to follow, she maintained an anxious vigil in front of the window.What if by chance he should happen to meet that awful man, Flint, unexpectedly? Since there was only one main road leading into town, it was a distinct possibility. God, please keep Logan safe.
It was late afternoon before Logan rode up to his cabin and dismounted. With a cry of relief she raced across the street and flung herself into his arms.
Logan wrapped his arms around her waist. “Well, now, this is what I call a welcome home.”
She pulled away from him. “Where have you been? Do you know what I’ve been through?”
“What is it, Libby? What’s wrong? Is Noel…?”
“Noel’s fine.” She glanced around to make certain that awful man Flint wasn’t spying on them. “Come to the house.” She turned and Logan followed at her heels, hammering her with questions.
“Libby, talk to me. What’s going on? Libby!”
She waited until they were safe inside, and the door firmly bolted before she explained.
Logan listened to every word as if they were flecks of gold that must be weighed. “You say the man’s name was Flint? Was he wearing an eye patch?”
“He most certainly was!” The dark look on Logan’s face confirmed her suspicions that the man was dangerous. “Obviously you know this man.”
“I’m afraid so. The man was here in December. Tried to push his weight around. So you told him you never heard of me, uh? I’m surprised he took your word for it.”
“I don’t think he did.” She shuddered as she recalled the look on Flint’s face as he glanced at Noel. “It was the other men…” Just thinking about how the men had made fun of the town made her bristle with indignation.
“They had the nerve to call this a sissified town. You should have heard how they attacked everything in sight. They even made disparaging comments about the curtains I hung up in the saloons.”
“Indeed they did! And another thing. They criticized the church.”
“They said we had enough flowers to pollinate the state.”
“They said that?”
“They most certainly did!”
Logan threw back his head and laughed.
She stared at him. “I fail to see what’s so funny. This is a serious matter. Why I could have been…Noel could have been….”
Logan grimaced. “I know, Libby. That’s what’s so astounding. You single-handedly scared Flint and his men out of town.” He grabbed her by the waist and whirled her around the floor and she laughed.
All too soon the lighthearted moment ended. Logan released her and grabbed his leg.
He sank to the floor and rubbed his knee. “It’s all right. The cold got to it. I should never have gone up there.”
She dropped to his side. “Gone where?”
“To Devil’s Bar.”
“Why did you?”
He told her about a gold nugget that Big Sam had found. “I thought…I wanted…None of us found any. I’ll have another look tomorrow.”
Libby’s heart sank. “I never thought you cared about getting rich.”
“It’s not the money, Libby.”
Her gazed dropped to his hand on his leg. “Let me.” She pressed her fingers against his knee. He stiffened at her touch, but only for the instant it took her to prove her competence in such matters.
“Feels good,” he said his voice hoarse.
She increased the pressure of her fingers and for several moments he let her.
Then suddenly he grabbed her hand. “I’ve been reading the Bible.”
“I read it every night. I want do right by Noel. I want him to have a godfather he can be proud of.”
“He’ll be proud of you, Logan. I know he will be.”
He nodded. “Like I said I’ve been reading the Bible. Read all about Moses and the Ten Commandments. But…”
“Go on. But what?”
“God said not to go hankerin’ after another man’s wife. But there’s no commandment for hankering…for a woman who’s nobody’s wife.”
Libby pulled her hand away and sat back on her heels, heart pounding. It was all she could do to find her voice. “I guess that’s…allowed.”
“Well now.” He was silent for a moment. “What if you want to do more than just hanker? What if you want to—“
“God’s very clear.” She took a deep breath. “There can be no…not before marriage.”
He stared at her, his expression serious. “That’s what I figured,” he said. “You being a fine Christian woman and all.”
“And you a fine Christian man.”
“Well now. No one’s ever called me that before.”
She stared at him and he stared back and for the longest while she couldn’t think of a thing to say to break the silence between them. If God was testing them He certainly knew how to make things tough.
Finally, Logan stood. “I better go. Let you get some rest.”
She nodded. “Good night.”
He limped to the door. “Good night, Libby.” And with that he was gone.
Logan staggered into his cabin. Not bothering to light his lantern, he stumbled around the room until he located his bedroll. Tucking it under his arm he left the cabin, mounted his horse, and headed up to the hills. He couldn’t bear the thought of lying in his own bed, knowing that Libby was so close. Every minute away from her was torture.
The sting of the cold night air cleared his head. He rode his horse to a protected place in the hills amid a cluster of cottonwoods. Reaching his destination, he remained on his horse, senses alert. It was a dark moonless night and the tall trees blocked out what little starlight there was.
Logan sniffed the air, mentally sorting out the odors until every last one had been identified. He could smell squirrel fur, rabbit, owl, and pick out the tangy smell of wild blackberry bushes that grew nearby. The slight stirring of wind carried the scent of coyotes. Another sniff and he determined that they were probably a few miles away. The same wind told him that there was no sign of man in the area, and that was the important thing.
Satisfied, he dismounted his horse and pulled his bedroll from the saddle. The ground was level and relatively free from rocks. He chose his position carefully, picking out a spot that allowed him to view the trail below. With Flint on the prowl, he couldn’t afford to get careless.
He stretched out beneath the stars and arranged his weapons by his side, ready to grab in an emergency.
It had been months since he’d last slept outdoors. It took weeks to grow accustomed to sleeping inside a man-made building. Strangely enough, he found it equally difficult to adjust to sleeping outside again. The slight rustle of leaves overhead distracted him, as did the rushing sound of the creek in the distance.
He lay on his side in the hazy state just before sleep and wondered why Noel hadn’t yet awakened for his two o’clock feeding. Thinking something wrong, he opened his eyes. It was then that he remembered it was not possible to hear Noel from this distance. Nor could he see the light from Libby’s cabin as she rose to tend to Noel’s needs.
He turned over. He was surprised at the many ways he remained connected to Libby and Noel, even after they had moved out of his cabin and into their own. It had been unconscious on his part; he hadn’t even known until now how connected he’d been. It wasn’t his nature at all. He was a man of the mountains. The great outdoors had nurtured him from childhood, been home and family to him, friend and foe. He knew the outdoors like he knew himself—maybe even better.
Tonight, nature was a stranger.
Libby paced a trail from one window to t
Three days. It had been three days since she had last seen Logan.
“Oh, Logan, where are you?” She was convinced that his leg was acting up again and he was trying to keep it from her.
When at last Noel awoke from his morning nap, she bathed and dressed him and laid him in his cart. She then pushed him along the boardwalk toward the center of town. Someone had to know where Logan was.
The town looked deserted except for Cast-Iron, who leaned against a post in front of the general store, whittling away on a piece of wood.
Although Cast-Iron never spoke to her or otherwise acknowledged her she always greeted him politely. Today was no different.
She crossed the road. “Good morning.”
As usual, she received no response.
Before she reached the boardwalk a sign fell from a false-faced building and crashed to the ground, startling the horses.
One bay reared on its hind legs and pulled free from the hitching post. With a wild whinny the horse galloped past her, knocking the pushcart over.
She watched in horror as Noel flew out. Cast-Iron took a diving leap and caught him in his burly arms.
Relief flooded through her. She grabbed her son from Cast-Iron and held him close. A prayer of thanksgiving trembled on her lips.
The commotion had brought others on the run. Sharkey ran bowlegged out of his shop, waving a pair of scissors. “You’re might lucky, Miss Libby. I thought for sure the baby were a goner.”
“They would have been too,” Hap concurred from the door of his general store. “If it hadn’t been for old Cast-Iron here. I believe we have ourselves a hero.”
“I believe you’re right,” Libby said, smiling up at the man, who looked embarrassed by the attention.
“I didn’t do nothing,” Cast-Iron mumbled.
“I don’t know about you, but I call a-savin’ a child doin’ somethin’,” Sharkey insisted. “I think this calls for a cel’bration.”
McGuire stuck his head out of the barbershop, his chin half-covered in soapsuds. “Before ya go drinkin’ yourself silly, Sharkey, how about finishing the job ya started here?”
“Ah, shucks, Duncan. You know what the matter with you is? You take life too ser’ously.” Sharkey shuffled back to his shop. “As soon as I finish up Duncan, here, the first round of drinks is on me.”
Logan rode into town after dark and stopped at the Golden Hind. The high spirits of the men surprised him. As far as he knew, not much had happened in the diggings, not since Big Sam showed them his gold nugget.
Sharkey greeted him. “Look who’s here. Where you been a-hidin’?”
“Hiding? Not me. What’s going on?”
“You mean you ain’t heard?”
“Don’t tell me you finally stuck it rich?’
“Naw, not me.” Sharkey turned to the others. “Logan here ain’t heard the news. Why we have ourselves a hero. Cast-Iron, take a bow.”
Cast-Iron grinned and looked embarrassed.
Logan couldn’t remember Cast-Iron ever cracking a smile before, let alone displaying anything that even slightly resembled civil manners. “So what did Cast-Iron do?”
“Why he saved Noel from sure death.”
A gut-wrenching pain shot through Logan as he stared at Sharkey. “He what?”
“Yessiree. Snatched him out of the way of a gallopin’ horse. Just like that.”
No sooner were the words out of Sharkey’s mouth than Logan spun around and dashed back outside. He headed toward Libby’s cabin on foot and pounded on her door.
She looked pleased to see him. “Logan! I’ve been looking all over town for you and—”
He took her hands in his and pushed his way inside. “I had to see for myself that you’re all right. I heard about what happened.”
She pulled away from him and the initial delight on her face dissolved into an angry scowl. “What do you care?”
“What are you saying? Of course I care.”
“And how am I supposed to know that? You walked out of here and disappear without a word.”
He rubbed his whiskered chin. “Libby, I do care. If anything happened to you, I don’t know …” The words caught in his throat.
He had such a deep need to protect her, protect Noel, protect the two people in all the world he cared about. But there was only one way he could do that.
“Libby, you must leave for Boston. It’s not safe here for you. You might have been killed.” Just thinking about her recent close calls made him want to carry her to Boston himself. “First Flint and now this… You’ve got to leave before Flint comes back.”
Her eyes widened. “You think he’ll come back?”
“You can bet on it. You said it yourself, Libby. This is no place to raise a child.”
“I know but…. It’s strange. There’s so much I hate about California. The harshness, the violence. The fact that a man with a gun can declare himself judge and jury. But I’m really going to miss the miners and...you.” She looked up at him and the raw honest emotion on her face tore him apart. “I’ll miss you.”
“Oh, Libby.” He gathered her in his arms and held her so close their hearts seemed to beat as one. He was filled with remorse that he had so little to offer her.
He lovingly cupped her face in his hands, knowing that every detail he memorized would only haunt him for the rest of his life, and still he couldn’t help himself.
She gazed back at him with tenderness, and as the full impact of his love for her took effect, he felt a squeezing pain. It nearly killed him to know that love was the enemy at the moment and had to be fought at all costs. For it could force them to make the wrong decisions—decisions they might both come to regret.
“You must go back to Boston,” he said.
“Please, Logan,” she pleaded. “Come with me.”
“I can’t, Libby. You know I can’t”
“Then I’ll come with you!”
He was so startled by the declaration, he stared at her dumbfounded. “You don’t know what you’re saying. A trapper’s life is no life for a woman. For a child.”
At the mention of Noel, he felt her withdrawal. She would always do what was best for Noel. And that’s what he counted on.
Two days later Libby stood outside by the clothesline, staring with unseeing eyes at the basket of wash that was waiting to be hung up to dry. It was so difficult lately to concentrate on chores. How could she? With Logan commanding her every thought?
How was she going to find the strength to say good-bye to him? How would she ever get through the days, the months and years without him?
So depressed was she by her bleak thoughts that she didn’t hear Thornton ride up. Indeed, she was so startled by the deep masculine voice that cut through her thoughts, she jumped.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he apologized.
He sat upon his fine black horse watching her in such a way that she was convinced her thoughts were written upon her red flaming cheeks.
Embarrassed, she tried to act pleased to see him. “What brings you here this time of day?” He would normally be at the mines.
He dismounted and tied his horse to a bush. “I have good news I thought might cheer you.”
“Word is that the stage will resume its regular run at the end of the week.”
Libby pressed her fingers into her palms. “Really?”
“He studied her face. “I thought you’d be happy about that.”
“I am,” she assured him, and since his face was dark with skepticism, she tried to sound more enthusiastic. “Of course I am. It’s just hard to believe. I’ve been trying to get home to Boston for so long.” Much to her surprise, she burst into tears. “Oh, dear. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.”
Thornton handed her a clean linen handkerchief and wrapped
Grateful for his understanding, she wiped away her tears. It occurred to her that he was probably the only man in California who had a clean handkerchief.
“I feel better now. Thank you.” She lifted her chin and handed his handkerchief back. Something in his face made her step away from him. She considered Thornton a good friend, but the look he gave her went beyond friendship.
Not knowing what to say, she pulled one of Noel’s wet nightgowns from her basket and shook it out.
“I didn’t tell you all the good news,” Thornton said, watching her closely. “At least, I hope you’ll think it’s good news. I’m thinking about returning to Boston with you.”
“Really?” She flung the nightgown over the line. “What about your mine?”
“As you know, I’ve been fairly successful. But most of the easy stuff has already been mined. To mine any more would require us to blast away solid granite. That would require far different equipment than is presently available. I need to return to Boston to make arrangements for such equipment to be transported out here, along with men trained to handle it.”
“Then you won’t mind having me as a traveling companion?’
Traveling alone with an infant was something that Libby had dreaded. “I wouldn’t mind at all.”
He shot a finger across his mustache. “It’s my hope that you would also allow me to pay my respects to you and your family in Boston.”
Libby blushed. “Why, Thornton, I would be most honored.”
Thornton looked pleased. “Perhaps you could do me the honor of attending a play with me. I know how you love the theater.”
“I would like that,” she said, trying with all her might to sound enthusiastic. But her voice was flat and she knew she fooled no one.
Thornton smiled, but she could see the hurt in his eyes and she felt
guilty. She pulled a wet garment out of her basket and hung it neatly next to Noel’s nightgown.
“Then it’s agreed? We leave Friday.”
“Friday?” She mustn’t think, she told herself. She mustn’t think of Logan. Mustn’t think of leaving him. Of never seeing him again. Mustn’t think. ”So soon?”