Thursday, December 2, 2010Posted by Elizabeth Ludwig at 12:00 AM
1888 Canadian Rockies
A murmur of voices warned eighteen-year-old Winnie Lockwood she’d overslept. Hay tickled her nose and throat. Cold touched her back where the hay had shifted away leaving her exposed.
Exposed! If she were discovered…
She wiggled but her movement made so much noise she drew in her breath and held it, praying she hadn’t been noticed. She cupped her hand to her nose and mouth, forcing back a cough from the dust. The hay had been fragrant and welcoming last night when she sought refuge and warmth. Today she was aware of the musty scent and imagined bugs creeping along her skin. It took every ounce of self control to keep from squirming.
“I’ll fork up feed for the animals,” a male voice called.
Was it friendly? Harsh? Dangerous?
One thing Winnie had learned was you could never be certain what lay behind the surface of a voice or a face. A kind face readily enough disguised a mean spirit and kind words often enough proved false.
“We need to head for town in good time.”
The voice had grown perilously close. She could almost feel the tines of a feed fork pierce her skin and she bolted upright, gaining her feet in a flurry of hay. She sneezed and swiped her hands over her very untidy coat.
“Who are you? What are you doing in my barn?”
The masculine voice had deepened several degrees and carried a clear warning.
Holding her arms out in a gesture she hoped indicated she meant no harm and had no weapon, she faced the man. Not much older than she, his chin jutted out in a challenging way. Knowing her life depended on a quick evaluation she took in his dark eyes, the way he’d pulled his Stetson low, how he balanced on the balls of his feet, the pitch fork at ready for defense. A man who would not give an inch or take one, who would tolerate no nonsense. The thought both frightened and appealed.
“I mean no harm. Just looking for a place out of the cold. I’ll be on my way now.”
She glanced toward the door and escape and made as if to lower her arms, testing his reaction.
“Now hang on. How am I to know you didn’t steal something?”
She grinned openly. “Don’t hardly see how I’d fit a horse or even a saddle under my coat.”
A deep chuckle came from behind the man. “Think she’s got a point.” An older man, with a grizzled three-day growth of beard and eyes flashing with amusement stepped closer. “Seems you should be a little more concerned with why a pretty young woman is sleeping in your barn than whether or not she might hide horse beneath her coat.”
The younger man grunted. “She’s likely a front for something else.” He shook the fork threateningly. “How many others are there?”
Winnie wiggled her hands. “I’m alone.”
“Head for the door and no sudden moves.” He waved the fork and she decided she didn’t want to question his sincerity in using it.
“I tell you I only wanted someplace to get out of the wind.” She was on her way to Banff and a job at the sanatorium but had run out of funds at Long Valley and started walking, hoping to arrive under her own steam or get a ride. Instead, darkness and cold had found her searching for a place to spend the night. She’d planned to slip into the barn for a few hours and be gone again before anyone discovered her.
“Now, Derek—“ The older man sounded placating. “Don’t be hasty.”
“Hasty? Kathy is alone in the house. If your accomplices have—“ He indicated she should move.
“Uncle Mac, grab that.”
Winnie edged across the expanse to draw the door open and stepped outside, breathing deeply of the fresh air. The day was sunny with a promise of warmth later on. A welcome change from the cold wind of last night that threatened snow and drove her to sleep in the barn of this man. At least there was a Kathy. That gave her hope for a little generosity that would let her get on her way without any more complications.
Sensing the man would not take kindly to her bolting for freedom and knowing she’d never out run him, she marched toward the simple ranch house, one story with a verandah across the side. Welcoming enough under normal circumstances. She kicked the dust from her shoes before she stepped to the wooden floor of the verandah.
“Wait right there.” It was the man called Derek. “Your friends have any sort of firearm?”
“I told you.—“
“Answer the question.” He nudged her with the tines of the fork. They didn’t pierce her coat but she jerked away, not caring to tempt him to push a little harder.
“Now son, don’t be doing anything rash.”
“Uncle Mac, I am not prepared to take any chances. Especially when it comes to Kathy’s safety.” His voice grew gravely as if Kathy meant more than anything else to him. Seems he was a man who cared deeply. Something quivered in the pit of Winnie’s stomach—a familiar, forbidden feeling rolled up in denial. She tried to force anger into that place to quench it but failed miserably. Something in the way this man was prepared to fight assailants, numbers and strength unknown, poured emptiness into her soul. She pushed aside the foolishness. She was headed for Banff and a job. She wanted nothing more.
“I understand that.” The older man, Uncle Mac, edged forward. “Why don’t I have a look?”
“Be careful. I don’t trust her.”
Winnie snorted. “Who’d have guessed it?”
Uncle Mac shot her an amused look that fled in an instant when Derek made a discouraging sound. The older man edged forward, slowly opened the door and peeked around. “Don’t see nothing.”
Winnie bit back a foolish desire to ask if they lived in an unfurnished house.
“Do you see Kathy?"
“Go in slow and easy. We’ll be right behind you. And I warn you, miss, don’t make a sound to alert your friends or I’ll be forced to jab this fork in up to its hilt.”
Uncle Mac drew his head back and glanced over his shoulder. “You’ll do no such thing.” Without waiting for Derek’s reply he slipped into the house.
Winnie followed. She’d laugh at all this unnecessary drama except she wasn’t sure what Derek’s reaction would be and he did carry a sharp fork with long tines.
As if to reinforce her doubts, he murmured, “Don’t think I’m a softy like Uncle Mac.”
“Oh no, sir. I surely wouldn’t make that mistake.” She tried her hardest to keep the amusement from her voice but wondered if she’d succeeded. What would it be like to have a man as ready to defend her as Derek was to defend Kathy? Aching swelled in a spot behind her eyes.
She stepped into the room. A big farm kitchen with evidence of lots of living. Messy enough to be welcoming …for the people who belonged here.
“Check her bedroom.”
Uncle Mac tiptoed through a doorway.
Winnie grinned, grateful the man behind her couldn’t guess how much enjoyment she got from all this.
Uncle Mac returned, a little girl at his side. Winnie put her at about nine or ten.
“She was playing on her bed. As blissful as a lamb.” He ruffled the child’s already untidy hair.
This must be Kathy.
Winnie studied the girl. Brown hair, beautiful brown eyes with the innocence of childhood tarnished. Where was the mother? Which of these men was the father?
The child’s eyes widened with curiosity when she saw Winnie. “Who’s that?” She bent sideways to see Derek. “How come you got a fork pushed into her back, huh, Derek?”
Guess that meant Uncle Mac was the father.
Derek parked the fork by the door. “So you are alone?”
Alone? In more ways than he could imagine. “Just like I said.”
“About time we showed some hospitality.” Uncle Mac headed for the stove. “Kathy set the table for four and we’ll have breakfast.”
Winnie’s stomach growled in anticipation. Winnie pretended she didn’t notice.
“Kat.” Derek warned. “Your manners.” His voice was as gentle as summer dew. Winnie blinked as the ache behind her eyeballs grew larger, more intense.
The child scurried to put out four plates and Uncle Mac broke a stack of eggs into a fry pan.
Winnie followed every movement of his hands. She hoped she’d be allowed a generous portion of those eggs. She’d eaten only once yesterday and heaven alone knew where she’d get the next meal after she left here. Lord, you know my need. Provide as You have promised.
“Sit,” Uncle Mac nodded toward a chair. “Tell us your name.”
Winnie gave it as she moved the stack of socks and mittens to the floor and sat. Her mouth flooded with saliva like a river suddenly thawed. Her plate had a rim of grease but she didn’t wipe it off. She’d have eaten off the table if she had to. Or the floor, for that matter.
“I’m Mac Adams. You’ve met my nephew, Derek. This is my niece, Kathy.” His expression softened as he turned to the girl.
Winnie nodded a gracious hello.
Uncle Mac scooped generous piles of eggs to three plates and a tiny portion to Kathy’s. He sat at Winnie’s right. “Shall we give thanks?”
Grateful for the food and the temporary reprieve Winnie silently poured out her thanks as Uncle Mac spoke his aloud.
“Amen,” he said.
“Amen,” Winnie echoed with heartfelt sincerity.
Derek cleared his throat, his warning glance full of affection and Kathy ducked her head over her breakfast.
Winnie pushed away the longing that threatened to unhitch a wagonload of tears. She only wanted to be on her way to Banff. Winnie forced herself to eat slowly, ladylike.
Uncle Mac picked up the dishes as soon as he was certain she was finished and added them to the stack on the cupboard by the stove. “Now, young lady, let’s hear why you’re alone and spending the night in a barn.”
Linda is giving away a copy of her book Christmas Under Western Skies. Be sure to stop by The Borrowed Book on Friday for your chance to win!