Authors: Suzanne D. Williams
Ezekiel awakened to
the sound of footsteps crossing the snow and minutes later, stared through the crack in the teepee entrance at what were large, male boots. He wrapped one hand around Timmy’s neck, her growl vibrating through his fingertips.
“Hello?” he called.
The boots shifted and a face appeared in the entrance, well-lined, dark-skinned, native.
The Eskimo nodded. “What have you done with yourself, Zeek?” he asked.
“Someone played target practice with me.”
George crawled inside and seated himself. He prodded at the fire, sending sparks whirling into the air. “You’re not here alone.”
“No. My friend, she went for help.”
“She?” George’s lips split into a grin. “You have a woman?”
Ezekiel lay back on the pallet. “A beautiful woman, tough as nails.
She’s saved me twice. I … I’m glad to see you though. My leg …”
George lifted the blanket and ran his hand around the wound. “You will lose your leg.”
“I hope not. She’ll be back. She’ll find someone.”
George’s shoulders stiffened, and he lowered the blanket. “There is no one to find.”
“Yeah, there is,” Ezekiel insisted. “The Paulsons. She’ll be on her way back by now. Trust me. No one’s more determined to save me than she is. She’ll succeed.”
s growl returned, her fur rising on end, and Ezekiel wrapped a hand around her muzzle. “Guess the dog doesn’t like Eskimos,” he said with a laugh.
George dug in his pocket and produced a knife. Flicking open the blade, he stabbed it into the ground.
Ezekiel stared at the buried point, his stomach lurching. George had some odd ways about him, once again the result of a lot of solitude, as well as his native beliefs. But he’d been very helpful when he’d first moved out here, shown him how to survive, and helped him build his place.
She left me some moose.” Ezekiel motioned toward the bowl with his chin.
raised the bowl to his nose and sniffed. “Is good,” he said. He dipped his fingers in and proceeded to take what remained.
d clenched Ezekiel’s gut.
“Hold up there, friend,” he
said, his voice shaky. “Leave some for the sick man.”
George lowered the empty bowl, his face growing hard. “You won’t need it.”
Sight of Timmy in the path brought Clementine to a halt. Rear end wagging, a whine in her throat, the dog bounded her way and threw snowy paws to her chest. She hugged her snout and patted her neck. “Where is he, girl?” she asked.
If only the dog could talk. They had a mile or more to go yet. Timmy had wandered far to be here. Anticipation building, Clementine shooed the dog away and started back forward, Mr. Paulson, who’d paused behind, continuing in her wake.
Snow swirled about them in the gusty wind. The weather had indeed turned worse, blowing blizzard-like all night and into the early dawn. Mr. Paulson had made them hold off for longer than she’d liked, though she understood why. It was a long way to go in such conditions
, and if not for the state of Ezekiel’s health, she would have agreed to wait. They were nice people, friendly, accommodating, and seemingly as concerned as she was. But with Ezekiel’s life on her mind, she’d pushed to leave until Mr. Paulson had agreed.
Timmy disappeared somewhere in the landscape, though her bark announced she was keeping pace. Clementine concentrated on the snow tracks in front of her. It was far longer than she liked
before seeing the teepee on the horizon, and nervousness built in her heart.
d promised to stay alive, had said her prayers would work. Now, here she was and she’d brought help. Mr. Paulson had a radio, flares, and medicines. It would be all right.
, she parked outside the teepee and rushed around to the entrance. Footprints just outside pulled her up short. She knelt and laid her hand in them. He’d come. The man after Ezekiel. Thrusting herself inside the teepee, she gave a cry.
“No … No. No. No.”
She pushed at the empty bedding, her fingers digging in the cloth as if he would be there still, then whirled and poked at a silent, cold fire pit.
Crawling back out, she stared down at the lines in the snow again, lines that obscured the further they traveled
into the distance, and met Mr. Paulson’s eye.
“He’s taken him,” she said. “I must go.”
Mr. Paulson reached for her, his aged fingers curving around her arm. But she shook him off, and eyes to the ground, shouldered her rifle and tracked the trail. Given the weather, they hadn’t been gone long. That meant he’d made it until morning. Given the weather, the pair of them can’t have gone far, especially with Ezekiel not able to walk on his own.
Ezekiel wouldn’t die. H
e’d promised her God had brought them together, and God knew no one else but her could rescue him from this danger. God knew no one else would try so hard or push so far. No one else would love him like she did.
The trail wound between the trees, the barest trace, and
stopped at the edge of a frozen stream. She stared at the green ice, then across at the opposite side, and a figure arose. Tall, broad-shouldered, wrapped in a heavy fur coat, he dragged something behind him.
t get ahead and cut the man off. She eyed the path and moved left, over the stream, up the far bank, and around a section of bushes rimed with ice. Walking lightly, she sped up her pace, hooking around the man and pressing to the base of a tree. Raising the gun, she aimed at the stranger between his eyes and called out. “Stop.”
The man paused
, and his gaze met hers.
“Let him go,” she said.
Laughter burst from the man’s lips. “I know you,” he said. “Nathan Button’s mysterious wife.”
Shaken, her grip slipped on the weapon. She
scrambled to readjust the gun. “Nathan is dead. I killed him,” she said.
The man’s laughter died.
Yes,” she said. “But Ezekiel’s death will be on your hands, not mine.”
“And my death?” he asked. “You will shoot me?”
“And leave you for the wolves.”
The man release
d the burden he’d been holding and laid a hand to his waist.
“Hands up,” she snapped.
He halted. Stepping out from behind the tree, she approached him.
“What if he’s already dead?” the man
asked, his hands aloft. “What if I only seek a place to bury him?”
“Then I will bury you together.”
His lips curved into a smile. “Nathan talked about you. He said his Clementine was ‘something else.’ That’s the way he used to say it. ‘Something else.’”
“You didn’t believe him?” she asked.
He wagged his head. “Oh, I did, yes. Just like I believe you’ll shoot me before this is over. So why don’t you do it now?”
She aimed for his heart. “I want to know why first. Why did you shoot Ezekiel out there and not here? Why did you burn down his cabin?
The man made a noise in his throat. “The gold is a story. I do not chase after stories. Ezekiel had served his purpose to me, and I was done with him. This land is sacred, and it is mine. He had no right to build here.”
“But you helped him.”
He helped me. We built a network of traps together and many teepees. More than I could do alone. He put me ahead, but threatened to stay and take what was rightfully mine. So I sent him to you.”
She lifted her head from the gun, though her hands stayed in place. “Sent him to me?”
“It was inevitable, your paths crossing. But you weren’t supposed to come back this way. I figured you’d go east.”
Anger simmered in her gut. “You
shot him in the leg to put him with me.”
The man nodded. “
However, I counted on too much, and then again, not enough because I see I was wrong. Nathan’s wife is tougher than he knew.”
Wh-what does that mean?” she asked.
“He used to say without him you’d run home. ‘My Clementine can’t survive without me.’ You’
ve proved him wrong.” He waved his hands. “Here I am, shoot me. Shoo …”
A shot rang out and the man’s eyes widened, his mouth falling slack. In a measured, almost sluggish manner
, he crumpled to his knees and fell face down in the snow.
Clementine looked past him into the eyes of Mr. Paulson.
A cry escaped her lips, and tossing her gun down, she threw herself at Ezekiel’s side. He was cold and stiff, his breathing shallow.
“No,” she said, clutching his face. “Do not die on me. Do you hear me, Ezekiel Knapp? We have a wedding to plan,
family to see. You promised me. You promised.” She bent her head to his and pressed their lips together. “Live,” she whispered. “Live. For me.”
It was a similar scene in a different setting. He lay in bed, half-clothed, Clementine’s hair spread over his chest. Only this bed was in a well-furnished room full of hospital equipment, and instead of lying at his side, she draped her head over him from her seat in a chair.
He stared past her at his leg and wiggled his toes.
Painful, but still attached.
it hit him, a two-ton weight. She was here, in town at his side. He swallowed the lump in his throat and brought a hand to her face. Sweeping her hair aside, he caressed her cheek with his thumb.
Her eyelids flickered, and she inhaled a sleep-laden breath.
“Good morning,” he said.
He had no idea if it was morning, afternoon, or evening, but his voice brought her upright. She clutched at him, her fingers wound in the bed cover.
“You didn’t die,” she said.
He smiled at her
. “No. You saved me again.”
“It was Mr. Paulson,” she said. “He shot the Eskimo.”
The Eskimo. George.
Ezekiel’s hand dropped to the bed. “Half-Eskimo. His dad was white.”
Her brow wrinkled. “
He said it was his land, and you were on it.”
looked away. “He always fancied himself more than he was, but I figured he was proud of his heritage. Plus, he was helpful to me.”
“He said you were helpful to him, and he was through with you.”
Ezekiel winced. “He said that?”
“Yes. But he didn’
t want to kill you, so he waited until we were close together then took advantage of the situation, shooting you where I’d find you. He thought we’d go east, not west.”
“So he burnt the cabin …”
“To clear the land,” she said. “He didn’t believe in the gold.”
“That’s a shame,” Ezekiel said.
“Because I have a secret.” Her hands relaxed and he captured one in his, folding their fingers together. “But, first, say you’ll marry me.”
A smile rose on her face brighter than the sun, and he sucked in a shaky breath.
“You are so beautiful. Make me the happiest man on the planet.”
“I have one condition,” she replied.
He drew her toward him, her face inches from his. “Name it.”
“I want to go home.”
“Now for your secret.”
He smiled and backed up an inch. “Where’d you get the clothes?” She’d changed, bathed, and an empty plate at her side said she’d been fed.
“The church,” she said. “When they brought you in, a Pastor and his wife were visiting folks. They talke
d with me; we prayed together, and I told them, you were the man God had brought to me.”
“You said that?” he asked.
“So does that mean …”
Her lips curved upward, and she gave a short nod. “I will marry you, Ezekiel Knapp.”
He grinned, feeling more like a silly boy than an adult.
“Now, the secret.”
Unable to wipe the smile from his face, he tugged her to
his side. She climbed into bed and wrapped herself around him, mashing her cheek to his chest.
He ran one hand through her hair. “I found the gold.”
She craned her neck back, her eyes wide. “You found it?”
His smile grew wider, near splitting his face.
“When I built the place. And I took it to town and put it in the bank. It’s a nice nest egg, which will take us anywhere we need to go.”
“But …” Her voice trailed away.
“But what? Aren’t you happy?”
he laid her face flat again. “I’m happy, but I don’t understand why if you had so much money you’d stay and trap. You took unnecessary risks, and …”