Authors: A Long Way Home
Sputtering, she pushed herself upward. Shivering, she crawled up the slight incline and collapsed in a clump of tall grass, gasping for air. The ba…by.
Oh, God, please save my baby.
As soon as she caught her breath, she rolled over on her back and pressed her frozen fingers ever so gently against her swollen belly
. Please be all right.
Her skirt and shirtwaist clung to her. The wet calico sheathed her like a thin coat of ice, and her teeth chattered. Never had she felt so cold in her life.
A terrorizing thought filled her head; if the fall hadn’t hurt the baby, certainly the cold would.
Thinking she’d freeze to death if she lay there much longer she forced herself to her feet. She wandered around in a daze until she located her valise. She tugged on the leather handle, but she couldn’t seem to lift the luggage off the ground. Indeed, she barely had enough strength left to stand on her own two feet. He heart ached at the thought of leaving her precious belongings by the wayside. But she had no choice.
Tears blurred her vision as she stumbled forward. Shivering with fear and cold, she fought against the panic building inside her.
The unwieldy shapes of canvas saloons, teeming with shadowy men, quivered and glowed like golden hot-air balloons about to take flight.
The incessant cries of Monte dealers rose from various tents. “Make your bets, gentleman. Make your bets!” This was met with shouts of “Come down wit your dust” and “Bar the porte.”
The high-pitched scream of a fiddle soared above the rowdy sounds of argumentative voices and loud, mirthless guffaws.
The street itself was empty except for the horses tied to wooden hitching posts in front of the various saloons. One horse neighed softly as she passed. A mule heehawed.
She nearly stumbled over a prone body that lay in the middle of the dirt road. Not knowing if the man was dead or merely drunk, Libby held her breath as she stepped around him.
Where was it? The hotel. There had to be a hotel someplace. Or a boardinghouse or something other than a saloon.
She reached the end of the town, passing no less than seven rowdy saloons on the way, but not a single hotel.
A nearby shout startled her.
Curses scorched her ears, followed by a thud and a groan. Panicking, she ran. Gunfire sounded behind her. Something grazed her shoulder. A hand? Not a hand…
Terrified for her baby, she grabbed onto the post of a wooden shack and clambered up the uneven steps to the porch. Something pulled her downward. She fought against the invisible force until she could fight no more.
Most men would not have heard the soft sound coming from outside the door, but Logan St. John was not like most men. He had senses as sharp as any wild animal; this was not surprising considering he’d spent all but five of his thirty-six years living in some of the wildest, rawest land in the northwest.
His lean body ready to spring into action with the slightest provocation, Logan pulled his gun out of his holster and turned to face the door. All this was done in one smooth, efficient move.
It was Flint. It had to be Flint. Drat! What a bothersome man. Back looking for trouble, no doubt. Well, Logan was just the man to give it to him.
Despite his resolve, he viewed the prospect as more of a nuisance than something he relished. He’d had a hard day in the diggings, and an even harder night at the gambling tables. To make matters worse, the cold wintry air had settled in his injured leg, causing it to ache worse than a mouthful of rotten teeth.
What he wanted was to climb into the warmth of his fur-lined pallet and get some shut-eye. He did not want to mess with the likes of Flint.
Senses alert, he stood perfectly still. Nothing. Obviously, Flint was timing his ambush carefully, waiting no doubt for Logan to douse his lantern and fall asleep. Fool man. Showed how much he knew. Even when a trapper slept he remained on guard.
Chiding himself for not being done with the man when he had the chance earlier, Logan decided to get the matter over with quickly. He moved toward the door, his moccasins soundless against the dirt-packed floor.
Ear pressed next to the wood, he shut his eyes and waited. It was dark outside, and Flint wasn’t likely to wait for Logan’s vision to adjust before he attacked. He ignored the sounds of gunfire and the wild whoops of miners in the distance. It was the sound of human breathing that he listened for, the sound of a bending knee or hushed footstep. Sounds too soft for most men to hear.
When he was certain he’d acquired his night vision, he held his gun cocked and posed, then ripped the door open with such force that the entire shanty shook on its foundation and threatened to collapse around him in a heap of splintered wood.
Nothing. Eyes sharp, he rapidly scanned the dark shadows for the least movement or suspicious form.
That’s when he saw the body lying at the edge of his porch. Shaking his head in disgust, he shoved his gun into the belt at his waist. Just another drunk.
Having learned at an early age not to show his back, he stepped aft into the cabin and stopped just short of the open doorway upon hearing a soft sigh, no louder than a kitten’s mew. Frowning, he glanced again at the dark form, not sure he’d heard right.
Another sound, barely above a whisper, convinced him to take a closer look.
Thinking it was a trick he moved cautiously to the side of the prone body and dropped to his one good knee. His touch elicited another soft moan and this time there was no mistake; it was a woman!
“What in tarnation…?”
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.