“Fire! The mine is on fire!”
He’s gone to the mine.
Her father’s repeated warnings rang in her head, but she ignored them and darted across the cabin to fling open the door. People carrying torches rushed by on the street, their voices lifted in panic.
“What’s happening?” she shouted. It was no use. Snagged by the brisk wind whipping down from the mountains, her words carried to no one in particular.
Their tiny home lay on the edge of town, next to the livery. Perhaps Nathan Hawk, the livery’s new owner, knew something. Sucking in a lungful of sharp air, Abigail yanked her shawl from its peg next to the door and threw it around her shoulders, struggling a bit as it tangled in her long, dark curls. The shawl was scant protection, but at least her nightgown was covered. Her red boots rested in the corner, but pausing to slip them on would waste precious seconds and Papa needed her now.
She whirled and hurried into the cool air, wincing as the stone-encrusted ground bit into her feet.
Raucous laughter spilled from one of Calico’s many saloons and drifted down the street. The drunkards inside cared nothing for the smoke billowing from the mine. They were too wrapped up in their whiskey to notice the shouts and panicked neighing of the horses. Perhaps they’d be too preoccupied to notice one witless girl scurrying through the night, helpless as she was to run or defend herself if one of them attacked.
“Hold it right there.”
The harsh demand sent a jolt through her heart. She skittered to a stop, peering through the gloom for a glimpse of the speaker’s face.
“Didn’t you hear the explosion? Don’t you know it’s not safe?”
“Miss Watts?” He sounded as incredulous as Abigail felt. Lowering the rifle, he said, “Land sakes, woman, hasn’t your father ever warned you—?”
“Papa’s in the mine. It’s on fire.” Speaking the words birthed fresh panic. “I was hoping you could help….” She couldn’t finish. Desperation boiled in her chest. “Oh, please!”
Nathan’s strong hands grasped her shoulders. Without a word, he drew her into the livery and struck a match. The dim glow of the lantern drove away the shadows, but it did nothing for the darkness crowding her heart.
“You say your father is in the mine?”
Now that she could see his face, Abigail read genuine concern in Nathan’s features. His brows were drawn, the muscles along his jaw bunched. She nodded. “Yes, but I didn’t dare go there alone—”
“Absolutely not.” His gray gaze sharpened. When she flinched, his tone softened. “You’d only be endangering your own life. Anson wouldn’t want that.”
Nathan gestured toward one of the stalls. “Come. Sit with Lizzie while I see what I can find out.”
She shook the shackles of indecision from her limbs and picked her way across the dirt floor. A tangle of arms and legs, Nathan’s five-year-old daughter slept soundly in the sweet-smelling hay. Abigail had taken an instant liking to the spunky little girl—and she to Abigail, often following her around town while she delivered mended clothing. Abigail sank to her knees alongside the sleeping child and peered up at Nathan.
“You will hurry?”
He nodded. By the light of the lantern, his grim face appeared even more somber than usual. “You should be safe in here but…do not leave Lizzie’s side for any reason. Is that clear?”
Warning sharpened his tone, but Abigail managed to bob her head. Nathan was a big man, rough-hewn and hard, but with a sadness in his eyes that said he was neither cruel nor unfeeling. Once she’d given her promise, he hooked the lantern on a nail above his head then strode out the door with his rifle gripped in his hands.
Outside, the shouts grew louder. Abigail kept her gaze fastened to the cracks in the splintered door, every moment hoping Nathan would return with her father in tow. At the same time, she feared that another figure with a more sinister intent might materialize.
She crouched closer to Lizzie. Would she ever feel safe in Calico? In the daylight, when the sun sparkled on the mountainside and wildflowers bloomed in abundance, Abigail talked easily with the prospectors. She laughed at their antics and enjoyed when they gathered with their families for a meal on the church grounds. But at night…
Clutching her shawl to her chest, she breathed a silent prayer, wishing the confidence she felt singing the hymns on Sunday was more tangible now.
Lizzie sighed, and Abigail thought she might awaken. Instead, the child rolled to her side, dislodging the thin blanket she’d been wrapped in. Grasping the edge of the covering, Abigail pulled it higher around the girl’s slender shoulders. The blanket would do for now, while the last traces of summer sun heated the sands of the Mohave, but in the winter? Chilling storms and dropping temperatures were only weeks away. Perhaps by then Nathan would have sufficient funds to finish the house he was erecting beside the livery. If not—
Winters were harsh in this part of California, even more so for a child as young as Lizzie. Abigail reached down and stroked the girl’s flushed cheek, tears gathering in her own eyes as she did so. She and Lizzie had both lost their mothers. What would Abigail do if she lost her father too?
A sharp gust of wind ripped through the entrance and thrust the door open with a crash. Abigail stared, her heart pounding. Then, with a muted cry, she threw herself between the entrance and Lizzie.
Her worst fears were realized. Outlined against the fiery night sky was the hulking figure of a man.