Margaret brownley, p.5

Margaret Brownley, page 5

 

Margaret Brownley
 



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  Hap didn’t concern himself with neatness. The shelves were never stocked the same way twice; the goods were in no particular order. It irritated Logan to find a bottle of molasses lying on the shelf next to a block of beeswax and four rotting apples.

  Knowing from past experience that Hap would be no help in locating the items he needed, Logan scanned the untidy shelves until he found what he was looking for. His arms filled with tinned goods, tallow candles, and lye soap, he dumped the items onto the rough-hewn counter.

  Hap folded his paper. “Anything else?”

  “You’d better give me some illuminating oil.”

  Hap stood on the wooden crate to reach the shelf over his head where a single can of oil stood next to an iron skillet.

  Logan glanced around. “You don’t happen to have any eating utensils, do you?”

  Hap stepped off the crate and pointed to a wooden keg. “You might find a few pieces in there.”

  Logan walked over to the deep barrel and started digging through a wide assortment of goods. Amid a hodgepodge of tin cups, spools of flaxen thread, playing cards, and a book on the life of Franklin, he found a knife and fork forged out of steel. Neither matched, but they would serve the purpose. On impulse, he reached for the book. Perhaps if Mrs. Summerfield occupied herself learning a little history, she would be less inclined to talk so much.

  Hap sorted through the supplies Logan selected with great interest, holding up the eating utensils. “What’s the matter, St. John? Ain’t your fingers good enough anymore?” He laughed aloud and wet the tip of his lead pencil with his tongue, then proceeded to add up the purchases. He glanced up. “Holy smokes, how long do you think this storm is gonna last? You got ‘nough supplies here to last a month.”

  Logan had no intention of revealing the fact that he was entertaining a guest. He shuddered to think how the miners would react upon finding a woman in town. They’d all be pounding on his door demanding to see her, obligating him to stand guard over her twenty-four hours a day.

  “If the storm lasts that long, I’ll be ready.”

  “That’ll come to thirty-two dollars even.”

  Logan frowned. It was highway robbery, that’s what it was, the prices Hap charged. Logan paid for his purchases and headed for the door.

  “Enjoy your eating utensils,” Hap called after him. The man’s laughter followed Logan outside.

  A few raindrops fell as he hastened down the dirt road toward his cabin. Upon reaching the porch, he hesitated and wondered if he should knock. Suddenly he felt like an intruder in his own house.

  He hated this, hated to share his space. It was bad enough that his leg forced him to hole up in a cabin, but it was only for the winter. Once the danger of snow had passed, he would be on his way again, in search of open spaces. He could hardly wait to head north, away from the madness that had suddenly descended upon California. It was getting so a man couldn’t think anymore without noise clogging up his thought processes.

  He decided against knocking, but he did pound his feet against the porch to rid his moccasins of mud. When at last the soles were clean and he was convinced she’d had adequate warning he stomped inside.

  She stood facing the door, looking prettier than a field of summer wildflowers. Even he was surprised at the way the dress fit her just right.

  “Do you like it?” she asked, turning around so he could see the dress to full advantage. “It couldn’t be more perfect. How did you know my size? You’ll never know how I used to dread the endless fittings my mama insisted upon with each new outfit. But even with all the careful measurements and pinning, I don’t think I ever had a dress fit so perfectly.”

  “I’m a trapper,” he said brusquely. He could tell the exact weight of a bear or deer with little more than a glance. Guessing the size of a woman presented no challenge.

  He let the door slam shut behind him. He hadn’t counted on her looking every bit as fetching in her new dress as she had in his old skirt. The nuisance of a woman would probably look good in a flour bag. He carried his packages across the room and dropped them on the table. “Are you hungry?”

  “Come to think of it, I am. Can you imagine? After the meal I ate earlier…why I never knew myself to have such a healthy appetite. Not since….”

  “Can’t you just answer a question with a simple yes or no?”

  She looked hurt. “Don’t you like to talk?’

  “I have nothing against talking.” He hated her habit of making him feel guilty. He had no idea how she managed it, but she did it on purpose, he was certain of it. “I don’t think a person should talk more than is necessary.”

  “How can you let the other person know what you’re thinking if you don’t come out and say it?’

  “If you have to beat someone over the head with words, I reckon they don’t want to know what you’re thinking.”

  A shadow of a frown touched her otherwise smooth forehead. “Why don’t you just say that you’re not interested in knowing anything about me?”

  “I know everything there is to know about you,” he replied, tearing into his packages.

  She folded her arms across her chest and lifted her chin in bold challenge. “Just exactly what do you know about me?’

  He narrowed his eyes. “I know that you’re from Boston and probably never worked a day in your life before coming to California.”

  “Ha! And you think you know everything!”

  He couldn’t resist the challenge. “I also know that you don’t have a husband waiting for you in Centreville—or any other city for that matter.”

  This got a reaction, as he knew it would. She stared at him dumbfounded, her pretty pink mouth parted and her eyes rounded.

  He couldn’t help but laugh. “Why, Mrs. Summerfield, in the short time I’ve known you, you’ve never said so much with so few words.” He chuckled to himself as he stooped to toss kindling into the firebox of the woodstove. He glanced at her briefly as he reached for the tinderbox and flint.

  “How did you know?” Her voice was strained, coming out in a half whisper.

  “About your husband?” He lit the fire and closed the door of the firebox, adjusting the vent. “A man would have to be a fool to leave his wife alone in a place like this.”

  She was silent for so long, he glanced over his shoulder to see if she was still in the room. The look on her face made him regret his careless words. So much in fact, he was pretty near tempted to apologize. Fortunately, she spoke and saved him the trouble.

  “My husband’s dead,” she said.

  He frowned, thinking about his own wife and her untimely death. “Did he know about the baby?”

  She nodded. “He knew.”

  Something in her voice made him study her. “Why’d you come to California?”

  The question seemed to surprise her. “The same reason as everyone else. Gold.”

  He didn’t miss the tight edge of her voice, or the look on her face. It was obviously a decision she’d not only come to regret, but had come to hate. It wasn’t surprising. It amazed him how many city-bred men came to this untamed wilderness to try their hand at gold mining. He’d actually found some of these men on the trail, starving to death because they had no knowledge of how to hunt or fish, or even how to use a weapon. Fools, all of them.

  “Most wives stay home and let their men come alone.”

  “I guess I’m not like most wives. I believe a woman’s place is with her husband. What about you?”

  He was ill-prepared for this sudden turn of conversation. “What about me?”

  “Why don’t you have a wife?”

  He slammed the skillet onto the stove. He had a wife. Once. But she didn’t want any part of him. Not that he blamed her. He was a trapper, a mountain man. What did he have to offer a woman? Still, he was surprised by the anger and bitterness the question provoked. He’d thought that after all this time, there was nothing in the past left to haunt him, and until Libby Summerfield showed up on his doorstep
, there hadn’t been.

  “Did I say something wrong?” Her voice caressed his ears with velvet-like softness. “I didn’t mean to pry into your private affairs…”

  Drat, but she had! Just her presence seemed to pry holes in the protective shield that separated him from unwanted memories. She asked too many questions, that’s what she did. How could a man concentrate on what he was doing with all the tongue flapping going on? He grabbed a package containing the eating utensils and book he’d purchased, and shoved it into her hands.

  As predicted, the small gift surprised her into silence once more. It was comforting to know that peace and quiet could be bought.

  *****

  Later, Libby sat one end of the table and Logan sat at the other. He had cooked up the rest of the rabbit and something he called sweet potatoes.

  “All the way from the Sandwich Islands,” he explained. “Cost me seventy-five cents apiece.”

  She tasted the tender yellow meat. “It was worth every cent,” she said.

  He stabbed the food on his plate with his knife and Libby tried to ignore his ill manners. “Why aren’t there any windows in your cabin?” she asked.

  “Don’t see no need for windows.”

  “Windows let in air and light,” she persisted.

  “All the air and the light a man could ever need comes in through the cracks.”

  “But you can’t see much through the cracks.”

  He shrugged. “That’s the point. If no one can see you, they can’t go using you for target practice.”

  Libby shuddered at the thought. “What a strange place this is. A man’s not even safe in his own home.” How she hated this land, this barbaric hellhole that had deprived her of her husband. How she hated the town that had put her unborn child in jeopardy and now held her prisoner.

  His face was inscrutable as he watched her. “A man who lives inside a building is at a disadvantage. The very walls that offer shelter also hide the enemy.”

  She regarded him curiously. She’d heard about men like this. Mountain men. Men who roamed the wild. “What do you do when it rains?”

  “Catch up on my sleep.” After a moment’s pause he explained. “Indians never attack in the rain. Nor for that matter do animals. Rain is the safest time to sleep. As long as you find a warm cave. Ever stay in one?”

  “No, I never did.”

  The corner of his mouth quirked upward as if he suddenly saw humor in the question. “What a pity. Caves stay warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and need no maintenance. You don’t have to worry about leaky roofs.” He reached for the empty plate in front of her, but she stayed his hand with her own. Her hand looked small and pale next to his.

  “Let me,” she said. “I’m not exactly helpless.”

  “No, ma’am, I don’t suppose you are. What do you say we work together?'

  He rose to his feet and walked to the fireplace to fetch the steaming hot kettle. Grabbing the handle with a piece of soft leather, he then poured hot water into two metal basins, one for washing and one for rinsing.

  She washed the dishes while he dried. He set the plates on the shelf over the sink, his hand brushing against her hair. She glanced up at him and his eyes locked with hers. Feeling her cheeks grow warm she quickly looked away and scrubbed a pot like her life depended on it.

  Presently, he reached for his fur jacket that hung from a wooden peg and shrugged it onto his massive shoulders. “I’ll be gone for a while. I’ll be just across the way. The boys and I like to play cards. The fire should last until I get back.” He walked to the door and hesitated. “There’s a chamber pot beneath the bed.” He kept his back to her as he spoke. “You’ll be safe inside.” He closed the door after him.

  She stood the scrub brush on end to dry. She wiped her hands on an empty flour sack, and not wanting to chance stepping outside to dump the dishwater, she left it.

  The cabin suddenly seemed very cold and lonely. Strange as it seemed, she actually missed the mountain man with his abrupt manner and peculiar ways. Shivering, she stoked the fire and drew a chair closer to its warmth.

  The town grew noisier as the night progressed. Raucous voices rose over the sound of foot stomping and fiddle playing. But it was the intermittent gunfire that gripped her with fear. Each shot sent her heart racing. Before coming to California she’d never heard a gun fire except on holidays or special occasions. As a child, she associated the firing of guns and cannons with joyful occasions, and it wasn’t until she was old enough to understand the war stories her father told that she knew guns could be used to harm people.

  Her nerves taut, she picked up the Good Book and searched the dog-eared pages for words of comfort. But if there was any consolation to be found among the revered Scriptures, she wouldn’t know. She couldn’t concentrate enough to read, not with the wild hollering and shooting outside. Finally, she closed the leather cover and tucked the little Bible back into a corner of her valise. She ran her hand across the tiny nightgown she’d made for the baby. Smiling to herself, she lifted the gown and held the soft fabric to her cheek.

  Jeffrey had been determined to strike it rich and all she wanted was for him to get the gold fever out of his system so they could go home and raise the family she always wanted.

  At the time they made their plans, she had been so in love, it had never occurred to her that things would go so terribly wrong.

  Even if she made it to Centreville in time for the birth of her baby, there was still the journey to Sacramento City, and the dreaded ocean voyage before reaching Boston.

  Startled by a sudden loud blast just outside the cabin, she jumped and covered her face with her hands. What a dreadful place this was. Home had never seemed farther away than it did at that moment. Nor had God.

  Chapter 7

  She woke with a start. The room was lit softly by the red embers from the dying fire. A quick glance at the dark form on the floor confirmed that Mr. St. John was asleep in his bedroll. It surprised her that his presence had such a calming effect on her. Now that she’d gotten over her initial fear of him she felt completely safe in his company.

  Something—a soft plopping sound—startled her. Tensing, she strained her ears. It dawned on her finally that it was raining outside and the sound came from a leak in the roof.

  “Mr. St. John,” she whispered.

  When he didn’t move she settled back. She supposed the leak could wait until morning. Besides, the rhythmical drips had a lulling effect on her. Her life was so filled with uncertainties; the constant dripping provided a small, but no less comforting measure of reassurance. Mr. St. John’s presence provided yet another.

  She woke the following morning to the sound of her host moving around the room. The floor was dotted with every possible receptacle to catch the many leaks that had sprung up in the night.

  Mr. St. John greeted her with a nod. “Like I said, never had to worry much about leaks in a cave.”

  “You’re beginning to make a believer out of me.”

  He glanced up at the ceiling barely four inches above his head. “I do believe it’s raining harder inside than it is outside.”

  She shared a laugh with him, which faded into a self-conscious smile when she realized he was no longer laughing. Instead, he was perfectly still, like a man about to net a rare butterfly.

  As if to catch himself staring, he turned suddenly, poured a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, and handed it to her. It was strong and bitter, but she welcomed the warmth. The air was cold and damp, turning her every breath into tiny clouds of white mist. The wind whistled through the cracks behind her. Shivering, she moved away from the wall. She drank her coffee in silence. He announced that breakfast was ready and she inched her feet over the side of the bed and into his oversize moccasins.

  “Walk on the planks.” He pointed to the narrow pieces of wood arranged on the muddied floor.

  She sat at the table in a chair closest to the fire. “What time is the stage due to arrive?” she aske
d.

  “Won’t be any stage. Not till the rain stops. The roads are too muddy.”

  She swallowed disappointment and tried to think. “But there has to be a stage. I have to get to Centreville.”

  “In this part of the country it’s best if you don’t try to get anywhere fast.” He studied her for a moment. “Don’t look so worried. The rain won’t last more than three days.”

  He spoke with enough authority to pique her curiosity. “How do you know that?”

  “Night before last I saw a ring around the moon. Counted three stars in the ring. That’s a pretty good indication of how long it will rain.”

  After breakfast, which consisted of flapjacks and strips of dried beef, Mr. St. John changed the dressing on her wound. He washed her shoulder with a soft chamois dipped in warm water, his touch surprisingly gentle.

  “There’s no infection,” he said. “In no time at all your shoulder should be good as new.”

  Her eyes met his. “I could have been killed.”

  “You were lucky.”

  “This is a barbaric, hateful town.” She shuddered. “Why do you live here?”

  He cut off a piece of beaver fur with his knife and placed it ever so careful on her shoulder. “There’s a wild group here, all right. But for the most part you know where you stand. A man might kill you, but at least he’ll do it to your face.”

  “I didn’t see the man who shot me the other night.”

  “That was an accident.” He finished bandaging her wound and rolled down her buckskin sleeve to cover it.

  She thanked him and, unable to find a comfortable position in which to sit, spent the reminder of the morning waddling back and forth across the wooden planks that crisscrossed the room. Her disposition grew worse with each passing hour. She walked like a duck and felt as unattractive as a full-grown bear. She was imprisoned in a dangerous town with only a mountain man for company. And any day now, she could give birth to Jeffrey’s child.

 

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