Authors: Maggie Osborne
Hailed as "one of the best writers in the business" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, multi-award-winning author Maggie Osborne delivers hilarious and heartrending tales of resilient women full of grit, pride, and dignity who shine through hard times. Now meet the most irresistible and independent heroine of them all, a woman called Low Down, who never had anything good happen to her until the day she asked for the one thing that only a man could give her. . . .
As scruffy and rootless as the other prospectors searching for gold in the Rockies, Low Down wanted nothing in return for nursing a raggedy bunch through the pox. But when pressed to reveal her heart's wish, she admits, "I want a baby." Not a husband, not a forced marriage to the proud man who drew the scratched marble and became honor bound to marry her. To be sure, Max McCord was easy on the eyes, but he loved another woman and dreamed of a different life. Yet they agreed to a temporary marriage that could end only in disaster. But can this strange twist of fate lead to the silver lining that both have been searching for?
When a group of grateful prospectors offers to give fellow prospector Low Down her "fondest wish" in return for her nursing them through a smallpox epidemic, they are stunned when she says she wants a baby. What she gets, however, is a husband she doesn't want, a husband who doesn't want her, and a family--and eventually a love--she never even dreamed of. Funny and touching, this riveting romance, in classic Osborne fashion, takes an outwardly independent but inwardly fragile heroine, pairs her with a hero smart enough to realize her worth, and lets them find each other despite a host of almost insurmountable obstacles. This rewarding read will not disappoint the author's many fans. Osborne, the reigning queen of this type of Western romance, lives in Colorado.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
"Wit, style, and class. Maggie Osborne is a storyteller who consistently delivers all three."
h Lordy, I'm dying."
Low Down stared into the man's swollen face and her nostrils pinched against the stink ofoozing pustules. Clenching her teeth, she reached deep inside for a dollop of energy, lifted his head, pulled out his pillow and changed the case, then settled his head back on dry, clean linen before she leaned near his ear.
"You're starting to scab up, which means the worst is over. You're going to make it."
"No I ain't."
"Now you listen, Frank. I know you got a pouch of gold hid under a plank in your cabin. If you die, I'm going tostealthose nuggets. You just think about that."
His eyes fluttered open. "How'd you know about my stash? That gold is for my funeral and a headstone!"
"Too bad. If you die, I'm stealing it. I'll jump your claim,too."
Leaving him struggling to sit up, she moved to the next cot on stumbling feet. Christ Almighty. When was the last time she had grabbed a couple hours of sleep or had eaten anything? She couldn't remember.
And the men kept coming to the school—sick, delirious, needing help. Before she bent over the next cot, she looked around, blinking hard to clear her vision, hoping this time she'd discover that someone had cometo help her.
Her boot heel slipped in a poolof vomit and she pitched forward, nearly falling across Max McCord.
Swearing, she fetched a bucket and flung the water at the vomit, it was all she had time for, the best she could do. Pulling a letter out of her trouser pocket, she looked down at Max. Like all of them, he was in a bad way. His face and eyelids were swollen, and he was beginning to stink like rotten meat. That meant he'd start oozing soon, which was good. If she could push, prod, and coax them through to this stage, they usually survived.
She waved the envelope under his nose. "See this?" It was addressed to a Miss Philadelphia Houser in his handwriting; she knew that because she'd taken the envelope from his jacket pocket before his clothing was burned. When she was sure he was coherent and watching, she tore the letter into pieces.
"If you die, Miss Philadelphia Houser will never know about the big fancy house you built for her. She'll never know that you were thinking about her right before you got so sick."
A hard flush of fever and outrage made him look almost healthy. "Damn it! You had no right to read a private letter! No right to rip it to pieces! You … you…"
Leaving him sputtering furiously and weakly pounding the bed, she moved to the next cot. Five minutes, that's all she needed. Just five minutes of sleep, then a long pull of whiskey to get her moving again.
This one's eyes were closed and she wasn't sure he was breathing until she shook him and saw his chest heave. Leaning to his ear, ignoring the weeping sores and the stench, she whispered, "Can you hear me, you worthless no-good worm? This is Martha, your first wife. I'm waiting for you, you spineless lazy chunk of pig offal. Go on and die so we can be together for all eternity." His breath hitched and a shudder of recoil ran through his body. She decided that he might just make it.
"Low Down? Are you still in there?"
The food was here already? It seemed like she'd just fed everyone. Dragging herself to the door of the schoolhouse, she sagged against the jamb and jerked back from the sudden blaze of sunshine. Or maybe the sting in her eyes was caused by the drift of noxious smoke curling off a pile of burning clothing and bed linens.
Preacher Jellison stood well away, almost in the twin ruts that served as a road, his nose and mouth covered by a blue bandanna. He pointed to a wheelbarrow full of food. "I don't know how good this will be. Mr. Janson who was doing the cooking died last night. Olaf Gurner cooked this."
She nodded, too exhausted to inquire how Mr. Janson had died. Not the pox, or they would have brought him to the school a week ago.
"Are there any new bodies?"
Slowly she shook her head from side to side. And thanked God. She doubted she had the strength to haul one more heavy body outside.
"Good. That's three days in a row. Maybe the epidemic is burning itself out." Preacher Jellison studied her. "You look like crap, Low Down."
A ghostly smile twitched her lips. "In my case that's probably an improvement."
"Try to get some rest. I'll be back in the morning. Is there anything you need?"
"More carbolic and glycerine." She tried to dose each man at least three times a day. Who knew if it did any good. "And bed linens."
"We've used every sheet in Piney Creek, so we sent down to Denver for more. They should be here tomorrow or the next day."
Squinting through the yellow smoke rolling off the burn pile, Low Down watched the preacher head back to the main camp, nearly deserted now. When the epidemic ended, the men would burn the schoolhouse to the ground and very likely it wouldn't be rebuilt. Families with children had been the first to leave, and no one expected they would return. The pox had killed Piney Creek's ambitions to become a town as surely as it had killed the men crowding the makeshift cemetery higher up the mountainside.
Too exhausted to move until she absolutely had to, Low Down lingered in the doorway, letting the thin sunshine warm her hands and face. Overnight, a powdery cap had appeared on the high peaks, and the hummingbirds had already departed for lower altitudes. Both events signaled an early winter this year.
Maybe she'd head south, she thought, slapping at a mosquito. Start looking for luck someplace warm and dry.
Behind her in the schoolhouse someone moaned and called for water. She heard the splash of vomit hitting the floor.
A man could shoot a squirrel out of a tree from a distance of sixty feet. But he couldn't vomit into a bucket or pee into a pot only two feet away. It was one of the great mysteries of life.
After sending a long look toward her tent, which she'd pitched above the creek near her diggings, she shoved herself off the doorjamb, pressed a hand to her eyes, then fetched the wheelbarrow and pushed the kettles into the schoolhouse. Before the stench hit her, she sniffed fish broth, which was not going to receive an enthusiastic reception, and venison stew, most of which would end in the vomit buckets.
"Stony Marks, get your butt back into that bed, or I'm going to break both your scrawny legs!"
A naked man oozing pus, with vomit dribbled down the front of his chest, had nothing to recommend him, she thought, disgusted. When this was over, she'd leave Piney Creek and go someplace where she hadn't seen half the male population naked and at their sick worst.
Like so many other things, prospecting wasn't working out for her. On the other hand, fortune was said to favor fools, so maybe her turn was coming. Maybe something good was waiting for her out there somewhere.
"Time to move on," she muttered, giving the wheelbarrow a shove. There was nothing good waiting for her here.
ip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hooray!"
Blushing furiously, Low Down scowled at the men saluting her and waving tin mugs of beer that Olaf had brewed for the occasion. As she'd never before been a guest of honor or been cheered, she didn't know how to respond or where to look or if she should raise her beer mug, too.
Feeling flustered, she turned her gaze down the mountainside toward the haze of smoke hanging above the ashes of the schoolhouse. Burning the school had been the first order of business; then everyone had climbed up to Olaf's cabin for a celebration dinner of fried trout and elk steaks, followed by spirited talk about rebuilding.
It was a gorgeous day to consider new beginnings. Blue gentian and thick clumps of purple aster spilled down the mountainside like jewels strewn among the boulders. Daisies danced along the valley bottom, chasing the creek, and the rabbit brush had spiked into golden bloom. High overhead an eagle circled against a bottomless sky, so graceful and wild and free that Low Down's chest ached to watch. Right now she wished that she, too, could fly so she could escape the speech it appeared that Billy Brown, Piney Creek's self-appointed mayor, was preparing to deliver.
Stepping up on Olaf's sagging porch, Billy pulled back his shoulders, thrust out his belly, and led the enthusiastic salute in Low Down's honor. If she'd known she would be cheered, if she had even suspected this would turn into the proudest day of her life, she would have bathed in the creek this morning and washed her hair and donned some clean duds for the occasion. Instead, the guest of honor wore an oversized men's shirt and denim trousers, neither of which were too clean, and mud-caked gum-rubber boots. While self-consciously stuffing a hank of hair up under her old hat, she noticed that everyone else had spiffed up.
Billy Brown wore an almost-new red flannel shirt under the bib of his overalls, and he'd combed his hair and trimmed his beard. In fact, all of her former patients were nearly as tidy as they had been before the women left camp at the beginning of the epidemic. It touched her that the men had done some laundry and combed some hair in her honor.
"First we need to thank Olaf Gurner for today's fine repast and for stepping up to the stove and feeding our sick after Jacob Jansen drowned," Billy Brown said, beginning his speechifying. A chorus of good-natured insults erupted, directed at Olaf's fish broth, followed by a round of hearty applause.
"There are sixty-four of us here today," Billy Brown continued, his expression turning sober. "Six weeks ago Piney Creek had a population approaching four hundred souls. Men were finding nuggets; this place was thriving. Then the scourge hit."
Along with the others, Low Down shifted to gaze down at the camp. The empty storefronts made her think of a ghost town. No music tinkled from the saloon doors. Even the assay office was boarded up. A light breeze chased a paper scrap across a trampled section of yellowing grass where campfires had burned before rows and rows of tents. Already wild roses had sprouted where the tents had been. Low Down turned back to Billy Brown with the sad conviction that Piney Creek would never fully recover from the epidemic.
Billy frowned at the bottom of his tin mug. "I guess you men and the men up there in the cemetery braved the pox and stayed for the same reason I did. To protect your claim."
Lifting his head, he stared hard at Low Down. "But one person stayed who didn't have to."
"Well, I had a claim to protect, too," Low Down murmured. It seemed that a guest of honor ought to be a bit modest.
"You ain't found enough gold dust to support a chipmunk," Jake Martin said, leaning to spit a stream of tobacco juice at an anthill. "You coulda left your claim without a backward glance."
"God heard our prayers and gave us an angel of mercy who didn't desert us in our darkest hour."
The breeze blowing off the high peaks felt cool against the heat of embarrassment rising in her cheeks.