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Carved in Love

 

CARVED IN LOVE

Tracks of the Heart, Book One

By Savanna Sage

 

This is a work of fiction, which means that the views expressed herein are the sole responsibility of the author. Incidents, places, and characters are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, whether living or dead, or any actual locales or events, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced by any means without the author’s written permission, except in the case of short quotations embodied in articles and critical reviews. In that case, go for it!

 

Copyright © 2016 Savanna Sage

 

Dedication: to Loraine Hansen, who has the kind of love in her life that most women only dream of.

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Shirley Ann Hales for expert information on carving and whittling, Amelia C. Adams for inspiration, Steven Novak for a dreamy cover, and Scott Dirk, Robert Dirk, Linda Pratt, Mary K. Olsen, Greg Anderson, Connie McCaughey, Shelbie Ordakowski, Janet Olsen, and Nancy Abbott for their invaluable expertise in proofreading and editing.

 

Book One: Carved in Love

Book Two: Escape to Love

Book Three: Two Hearts for One

 

 

Chapter 1

 

The first dress Eleanor Ransom made for herself nearly killed her. It came right down to being her own fault with those big stitches she took, but the enterprise was entirely her mother’s idea.

Mama set great store in family traditions, believing they should carry on no matter what. Great Grandma was a seamstress, Grandma was a seamstress, Mama was a seamstress, and if Mama had anything to do with it, Ellie would be a seamstress, too. “A young lady of nineteen is no lady if she can’t dress herself,” Linnea Ransom told her daughter, her finger aimed at Ellie for emphasis.

“I’m eighteen, Mama.”

“Nearly nineteen. I was able to sew a full dress by the time I was twelve.”

Linnea had repeatedly tried getting her only daughter interested in sewing, as intently as Ellie tried to make her mother understand that she would much rather wrap her hand around a whittling knife than pinch a needle between her fingers.

Yet Mama persisted, her businesslike mind discounting her daughter’s arguments. ”Anything can be learned with the proper application of effort and desire,” Mama insisted, standing the full 5’ 4” height of her sturdy, square body. Even her pretty face was square, surrounded by her light hair and blessed with warm brown eyes that lit up when she smiled, which happened most often when Papa was around.

A musician by trade, lighthearted Papa was engaged at the dance hall nearly every night, sawing away on his violin, running his fingers up and down the piano keys, or blowing a lively tune on his harmonica. He put value on pursuing what a body felt it was called to do, so much that in his eyes, following the heart was more important than tradition. So when Mama had called to a younger Ellie, ready to march her to the sewing basket, Wilburn had taken one look at his daughter’s downcast blue eyes, a smaller version of his own blue eyes, and created various methods to distract his wife.

He might ask Linnea for a haircut, mention that he would sure appreciate some of her famous apple pie, ask her to show him which of the projects she had lined up for him that she most wanted finished around their modest home. He might even say, “Linnea, my love, dance with me.” Then he’d pull his wife into his arms and spin her around the parlor, her long skirt swishing out in a billow which her husband managed to avoid tripping on. A head taller than his wife, long and lithe, Wilburn still managed to match his steps to hers.

“Oh, Wilburn!” Linnea protested, sending a look of devotion up at his grinning face, even though the lines on her forehead made it look as if she was trying to be stern.

While her mother was distracted, Ellie escaped outside to roam the nearby woods in search of perfect pieces of wood to carve. In the absence of their daughter, Wilburn often played his harmonica while his wife sewed, the two of them perfectly content in one another’s company.

On one occasion, Ellie walked into the kitchen and caught her papa kissing the back of Mama’s neck. Papa pulled away with a grin, while Mama ducked her head and rubbed the spot as if trying to take away the feel of his lips. “Wilburn, you stop this nonsense and go out and chop more wood,” Linnea commanded.

“Yes, my love.”

Now that Papa was gone, Linnea seemed determined to get her daughter to spend more time with needles and thread, as if that might bring him back, inviting her to dance. She had shown Ellie how to use enough pins around the hem to keep the fabric flat and even, and to take small stitches while sewing the pieces of fabric together.

But pinning bored Ellie nearly to tears. There were much more important things to do than take fine stitches in a long seam. Ellie couldn’t help pointing out that her seams were longer than most, since she was taller than Mama. “I am content with my old dresses,” Ellie insisted.

“But they are too short,” Linnea pointed out. “And you needn’t complain about your height. You’re not as tall as your father, you know.” Linnea turned suddenly and dashed a hand at her eyes.

Ellie’s heart lurched. She hadn’t meant to make Mama cry. The sting of missing Papa pricked at her, making it hard to breathe. Bending over her work, she decided it was better to stop complaining and simply get the job over with. In the silence, Mama left her alone, so Ellie used her time well, getting the project done with big, impatient stitches on the pink calico that her mother had chosen for her.

The final loathsome stitch was made while Linnea was in the kitchen sifting flour into a bowl and cutting lard and salt into it. Mama made sure to bake two pans of biscuits for dinner so that Ellie’s 17-year-old twin brothers wouldn’t leave the table hungry.

Ellie hastily tied a knot at the end of the thread as her mother had shown her, sticking the needle halfway through at the point of her last stitch, then winding the thread around the needle twice. Last of all, she pulled the needle the rest of the way through, making the thread she’d twisted around it form a knot.

Snipping the thread, Ellie hurried to her small bedroom tucked under the sloping roof shared by the kitchen. Her parents’ larger room was the on the other side of the living room, which was simply an extension of the kitchen, and her brothers shared the upstairs with its steeply sloping roof.

After pulling on her new dress, Ellie tied the bow in back, which made one side of her dress pull up higher on her waist than the other. It didn’t matter to her, but she untied the bow and retied it more loosely, hoping to keep Mama from noticing. Ellie had no intention of unpicking the threads and resewing it.

When she walked back into the living room, Linnea was wiping her hands on a towel. She looked up and stopped as if her hands had turned to stone. Her dark-eyed gaze slid up and down the new dress. “Did you press that?”

Ellie pinched the stiff new skirt fabric between her fingers, hoping that Mama wouldn’t notice that she’d cut the skirt narrower than the pattern. She simply didn’t want the bother of all that fabric tangling around her legs in case she felt like running. “I pressed as I went along.” The truth was, she’d used the heavy old iron on a few of the pieces she’d cut out, but not every single one. If there were no coals in the stove to get the iron heated enough to press the wrinkles out, Ellie didn’t want to be bothered with building a fire. Besides, some of the pieces were so small, they seemed practically unnecessary. How would anyone even notice if they were ironed flat or not?

“Do you remember I told you the dress goes together best if ironed first?” Linnea hung the cloth on a wooden dowel next to the sideboard and moved closer. “Once the whole thing’s done, you press it again.”

Ellie took a step toward the door. “Seems like pressing twice is once too much.”

“Not if you want to look your best.”

“I’m just going to the train station, not to church,” Ellie said, putting her hand on the door latch. “I want to meet the train.”

Mama’s gaze moved from the dress to Ellie’s haphazard job of pinning up her hair. Linnea reached up to tuck the white streak running down the side of Ellie’s head down among the dark strands. Ellie tolerated her fussing. She was used it. Except for the white strands, Ellie’s hair was the same dark color as her father’s, with waves slipping over her shoulders as she brushed it out at night. Papa always told her the white streak was angel light that had come down with her from heaven, but the kids in Rambling, Colorado, had other, less attractive ideas about its origin.

Some of the girls whispered and laughed behind their hands while the boys chanted, “Skunk Girl, Skunk Girl, pee-yu!” Holding their noses, they circled her, watching for a reaction as keenly as an owl searched for mice to pounce on and devour.

Ellie’s initial embarrassment gave way to anger. She managed to get in some licks at the laughing boys ducking away from her long arms swinging their way. If she happened to catch hold of one, she flung him to the ground and pierced him with a blue-eyed stare from her impressive height.

Linnea sighed. “I don’t understand why you want to meet the train.”

Ellie wasn’t about to tell her mother that she wanted to be the first to take a look at the new shipment of woodworking tools. Mr. Cready at the general store told her last week that he expected the shipment to come in on the next train. Once at the station, Ellie could follow the shipment to the general store, watch the wooden crates pried open with crowbars, and look at the tools all she wanted. She might even purchase some, if the price was not too dear. If anyone looked askance, she could always say they were for one of her brothers.

Linnea sighed. “At least be sure to wear a bonnet.”

Ellie grabbed her blue bonnet from the hook by the door.

“That doesn’t match,” Linnea said. “I’ll just have to make you a new one from the pink scraps.”

Ellie bit her lips together to keep from reminding her mother that she had wanted to sew a blue dress, but mom had insisted on pink, declaring it as Grandma’s favorite color. Ellie had no way of knowing Grandma’s favorite color, but she couldn’t help but wonder if Mama’s real reason was because she thought that pink might somehow influence her daughter to go after more feminine pursuits.

Ellie couldn’t help that she loved working with wood. Aside from the occasional nick of the blade on a finger, which was easily disguised with a pair of gloves, Ellie couldn’t understand why her mother was so against her woodcarving. Even when Ellie pointed at the gracefully curved legs on Mama’s favorite French clawfoot dish cupboard inherited from her grandmother and said, “Someone had to carve them into such feminine shapes. It could very well have been a woman,” Mama remained unconvinced.

Papa had liked carving wood, too. His most ambitious project had been the kitchen table legs. Is that why Mama thought it was a masculine occupation?

Ellie stepped outside in her pink dress, swinging the blue bonnet up onto her head. She took in a big breath of freedom just as a gust of wind tried to whip the bonnet from her grasp. Ellie tied the bonnet tightly under her chin and strode toward the train station beneath a spring sky tumbling with skiffs of clouds busy crowding out the smooth blue expanse of Colorado sky.

As she hurried along, Ellie stumbled a couple of times, annoyed that the pointed toes of her boots momentarily caught on the big stitches in her skirt hem before slipping free. Picking up her skirt seemed to solve the problem, and she hurried along the dirt road, between rows of trees filling out with fresh green leaves swaying overhead.

Before reaching the station, Ellie spotted the far-off plume of steam flowing sideways in the rising wind, the end of it feathering out in the breeze like a galloping horse’s mane. She should easily get to the station ahead of the train, just as she wished.

This had to be the train bringing the shipment of new woodworking tools. Ellie felt the comforting weight of her whittling knife, whetstone, a just begun rabbit carving, and a nearly finished frog with a wide grin in her pocket. Her pocket was the most carefully crafted piece of her dress, sturdy enough to carry her carvings. Ellie noticed Polly Agar on the path ahead of her, lugging a bucket heavy enough that it tipped her sideways. Polly was made of angles, with long, thin arms and a waist a man could wrap his hands around. While crossing the plains with her parents, Polly was orphaned at a young age. As near as Polly could recall of her birthdays, she was coming up on seventeen.

As Ellie drew closer, she couldn’t help admiring the practicality of Polly’s skirt hem, threadbare as it was, swaying up above her ankles. There was no need to hold it up with a hand if it was a few inches off the ground. Some might consider it indecent, but Ellie decided that Polly’s scuffed high top boots, each with a few missing buttons, covered her ankles adequately. Ellie considered re-hemming her skirt shorter, but shuddered at the thought of threading another needle.

Polly’s shorter skirt was not the result of fashion, however. It was all the people who’d taken her in as an orphan would provide. While Mr. and Mrs. Demar gave Polly shelter, food, and two dresses that they were slow to replace when they got too small, it seemed the main reason they took her in was for her to do all their chores.They were stingy with words of praise and quick with another task to do.

When Ellie drew abreast of Polly, she saw that her normally cheerful face was mottled from dried tears. The frizz of red hair that insisted on escaping her bun spread out around the edges of her frayed bonnet.

Putting aside her hurry, Ellie slowed to keep pace and said, “Hi, Polly.”

Polly worked up a smile. “Hey, Ellie.” Then the corners of her mouth dropped like a stone in a pond.

“Where are you headed?”

“I’ve got to take this bucket of milk to the general store before it spoils.”

Ellie glanced down at the wooden cover over the bucket. “Wouldn’t it be easier to use a wheelbarrow?”

Polly paused and switched the pail of milk to her other hand, tipping her at an awkward angle in the other direction. “Mr. Demar says it’d slosh too much.”

“Well,” Ellie began. Then she paused, wondering if she could spare the time. Squaring her shoulders, she said, “Let me carry it for you a ways.”

Polly shook her head, the curls around her face twisting in the breeze. “No need, Ellie.” Her voice was lifeless. “I’m used to it.”

The depth of Polly’s sadness made Ellie bold. Hoping to stir up pleasant memories, Ellie asked, “Do you remember anything about your parents?”

Polly stumbled as her face lit up. Ellie reached out and grabbed her arm to steady her, but Polly did not seem to notice. “Oh, yes! My Pa had hair like mine. He had freckles, too.” She turned to Ellie. “Do I have freckles?”

Ellie scanned Polly’s light complexion, as smooth as cream. “No, I can’t say that you do.” For the first time, Ellie realized that if Polly weren’t so thin, she might actually look rather pretty.

Polly sighed. “He was jolly. Liked a joke.” She gave Ellie a mischievous grin. “Whenever he passed gas, he’d say it was a spider barking.” Polly chuckled. “Spiders don’t bark. He always told me folks shouldn’t be ashamed of what their bodies were made up to do, ‘cause it’s all natural.” Polly blinked and added, “and he was the best spitter I ever knew. He could win a spitting contest against anyone. I tried to beat him, but his spittle just flew out so far you could hardly see where it landed.” A dreamy smile crept over her face. “He used to call me his little frog princess.”

Ellie laughed. “Why a frog?”

“Because when I was a baby, I folded my legs up like a little frog to sleep.”

“That’s nice,” Ellie said with a smile, picturing a baby Polly folded up a like a redheaded frog, secure in the love of a father watching over her as she slept.

Tears pricked the backs of Ellie’s eyes. She knew what it was like to lose a father. She swallowed, then asked, “How about your mother?”

“She had the sweetest voice in the world. She’d sing me to sleep, and we sang while we did chores. She never said I was underfoot or in the way. She never struck me.” With a sniff, Polly dropped her smile and her gaze, shuffling along with her eyes trained on the ground.

After a few more steps, Polly mumbled, “You don’t need to walk with me.”

“I don’t mind,” Ellie said, half meaning it.

Polly glanced up. “You were heading somewhere on the run. I don’t want to keep you. Go ahead, get where you’re going.” Polly pulled up another smile from her reserves.

“If you’re certain,” Ellie said.

“Certainly.”

Ellie strode ahead of Polly, then stopped as her heavy pocket gave her a bump. “Just a minute.” Ellie pulled out the carved frog. At a glance, it appeared to be finished, even though in her eyes, it still needed some work. Before she could second guess herself, Ellie held it out to Polly. “Here.”

Polly halted, staring at the carving sitting snugly on Ellie’s palm, grinning up at her. “For me?” she whispered.

“Yes.” Ellie’s spirits lifted at the joy she saw filling Polly’s eyes.

Setting the bucket down, Polly took the frog in both hands. A genuine smile transformed her features, making her positively radiant. “Thank you, Ellie,” Polly said, stroking the wooden frog’s head with her finger. “I love it.”

“Welcome,” Ellie replied. Even though the frog was not her best work, seeing how Polly gazed at it made it look like it belonged in a treasure box among golden jewelry.

After a last loving look at the cheerful wooden face, Polly carefully tucked the frog into her pocket and picked up the bucket again. This time, she swung down the road in her tipped-over gait with a spritely step, the wind whipping her shorter skirt merrily around her legs.

Ellie hurried toward the station, feeling happy until she heard a voice behind her that made her hunch her shoulders. “Mornin’, Eleanor,” David Unger called.

She didn’t want to stop, but courtesy dictated at least an acknowledgement. Glancing behind her, she saw David rapidly gaining ground. Ellie moved her lips as little as possible to reply, “Mornin’,” and tried to take longer steps. But it was no use.

Big David’s long strides soon brought him level to her, where he slowed to keep pace. His broad face creased into a smile. Suddenly feeling as if she was being choked, Ellie reached up to loosen her bonnet ribbons a bit. “What are you doing down this way?” David asked.

Ellie tried to quell her impatience. David was friends with her brothers, particularly Jesse. Lately he’d been spending time with her, thinking somehow that friendship with her brothers gave him leave to pester Ellie with invitations for walks and dances at the community flings. He’d even claimed he’d taken up carving, alongside building apple wood chairs, but Ellie had yet to see a single carved piece of his making.

He was nice enough in his own awkward way, but she’d seen him chew with his mouth open and blow his nose into his fingers too many times to feel anything but tolerance toward him. She didn’t know how to make him understand that he was not right for her, unless she told him straight out. And since he hadn’t declared his ultimate intentions, it would be awkward to bring it up.

Glad for the sight of the station up ahead, Ellie didn’t remind him of the incoming tool shipment. He likely already knew. With her gaze fastening on a tall stranger standing on the platform, she said, “I’m here for the train.” For the space of the flicker of a hummingbird wing, Ellie thought it might be her father. But that was impossible. While this man might be of a similar height to Papa, he had lighter hair beneath his short top hat. His frock coat swayed in the wind as he faced away from her, watching the train that was nearly at the station.

“There he is again,” David said.

“Who?”

“That fella in the funny hat. He’s been here the last three times the train’s pulled in, always starin’ down everyone gettin’ off, yet always leaving by himself.”

Ellie took another look at the stranger as she neared him, her boot heels clacking against the wooden platform raised three feet above the tracks, which made it easier for passengers to get on and off. She couldn’t help wondering who, or what, the stranger was waiting for.

Just as she stopped behind him, the wind gusted against her skirts, making her brace herself with a sudden, unladylike jolt of her limbs. David reached toward her, but Ellie shied away from his touch, turning on one foot as the wind swirled beneath her bonnet, tugging the loose bow apart and sawing the ribbons against the tender skin at her throat as they parted. Her bonnet lifting from her head, Ellie grabbed her smarting neck with one hand and instinctively flung her other hand toward her bonnet sailing off on the breeze, accidentally striking the man beside her.

The stranger’s startled blue eyes turned toward her, his straight nose leading to a square jaw opening in surprise as she tipped out over thin air. Heart rising in her throat, Ellie tried to take a steadying step that would have surely saved her if only her boot toe hadn’t caught in one of the wide hem stitches. As effectively as shackles on her ankles, her foot was arrested so that she couldn’t stop herself from toppling over the edge of the platform. In a vain attempt to catch her balance, Ellie windmilled her arms in a most unladylike fashion, twisting them around so hard that the broad stitches in her left armhole snapped. She felt a sharp tug and a sudden breeze under her arm just before hitting the train track with a painful thump. Her head bounced off the rail, leaving her dazed and scarcely feeling the bruises on her body.

The oncoming train approached through dreamlike clouds of steam. Gasping for air, Ellie stared at it growing bigger and bigger, wondering if it was real. The tracks vibrating beneath her made her head spin. Get up, get up, get up! her mind screamed, but her body didn’t obey.

Why, oh, why had she taken longer stitches when her mother wasn’t looking?

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Curtis Locken’s attention was rudely yanked from the oncoming train when someone struck him. Expecting to see either a vagrant or a ruffian, he turned with annoyance and was startled to see a lithe young woman with her arms flung out. As he blinked in surprise, she spun her arms in circles. At first he wasn’t sure what she was about, but in a moment he realized that she was tipping over the edge of the platform toward the unforgiving metal tracks below. His gaze met her wide, blue-eyed plea for help as her long dark hair whipped around her head in a frenzy.

Instinctively, he lunged toward her just as a male voice from behind him cried, “Eleanor!,” but Curtis’s grasping fingers only caught hold of her sleeve, ripping it partially free from her bodice as she fell.

Without a second glance at the iron wheels rolling toward him as the train whistle moaned a warning, Curtis leapt from the platform and bent over the young woman. Blue eyes staring down the track at the oncoming train, her full pink lips tried to take in a breath.

In thought as quick as a lightning flash, Curtis knew that even though the train had slowed to stop at the station, it couldn’t brake in time to avoid running over her. Curtis wasn’t sure he could move her in time, but he would not leave her to suffer an awful fate alone.

With no time to lift her back up onto the platform, Curtis grabbed her beneath her arms and dragged her off the tracks on the far side from the station. Just as the toes of her scuffed boots dragged over the rail, the heavy train wheels cut past. Startled faces peered out the windows at them as they train rolled by more and more slowly until the engine came to a halt further down the track.

Curtis let out a heavy breath.

As the girl squirmed in his grip, he suddenly realized that his hand was touching the smooth, warm flesh beneath her arm instead of pink dress fabric. Startled, he nearly dropped the young woman, but managed to lay her on the ground instead. He knelt down as she sat up and put a shaking hand on his arm. She was strikingly beautiful, with stormy blue eyes and luxuriant dark hair that had an intriguing streak of white waving about her head like a banner. She turned her lovely face toward him and stared up through her swaying curtain of hair.

“Why?” she asked, her voice low and slow, as if she’d just woken. Her lovely eyes blinked slowly, captivating him.

He leaned closer. “Why what?”

She swallowed before mumbling in that same slow, husky voice, “Why’d you tear it?”

Startled, he pulled back. “I don’t believe I did.”

“Mama won’t like it,” she continued. Then her eyes began filling with tears. As if confessing her worst sin, she clutched his jacket and whispered, “Big stitches…” Her voice trailed off, her hands relaxed, and her eyes closed.

Alarmed, Curtis grabbed her shoulders and gave her a slight shake. His hand touched a gooey patch of something on her back. With a start, he pulled her closer to his chest so he could quickly look over her shoulder to check for blood. Her head lolled against him, and he pressed her closer as if that would be enough to will her to live. She just couldn’t die. He wouldn’t let her.

To his relief, she wasn’t bleeding. He grimaced at the sight of a rather fresh patch of brown cow manure clinging to her dress.

Ellie stirred and asked, “What’s that smell?” Ellie asked, turning her head to lean her cheek against Curtis’s chest. Her arms slid up over his shoulders and clasped behind his neck as if begging him to protect her. “What’d you do?”

Startled, Curtis replied, “I assure you, Miss… Eleanor, I did not do anything, except save your life. In the process, you appear to have landed on a… bit of dirt.”

Ellie pulled back and stared up at Curtis, her lovely eyes narrowing in suspicion. “How d’you know my name?”

“I heard someone say it as you were falling.”

Ellie’s eyes softened. “Oh. David.” Then she looked up at Curtis again. Swaying, she murmured, “He fancies me, you know.” A slow blink. “Does your mother know that her baby grew up to be a handsome man?” Then her eyes closed again, and she leaned her head against his chest. “You know my name, so I must know yours. Have we been introduced?”

He wanted to brush the hair from her face, to cup her chin in his hand, to make sure she was looking at him so she would be certain to remember his name. “I’m Curtis Locken, at your service, ma’am.”

“Curtis,” she said as if tasting something sweet. She smiled, then pulled away just enough to look up at him through her lashes. “Your voice sounds as sweet as warm molasses. Why is that?”

“I’m from Georgia, ma’am.”

Ellie let her eyelids slide shut again. Curtis memorized the sight of her long, dark eyelashes resting on top of her cheeks, her skin appearing as soft as magnolia petals. He lightly brushed the side of her face, proving himself right.

Snuggling in against him, she said, “I like it. It rumbles in your chest. Say something else.”

At that moment, David climbed between the train cars, followed by a scowling station master with mutton chop whiskers. Trotting along beside was a round-faced man wearing a conductor’s uniform. “Eleanor, are you alright?!’ David cried.

Ellie raised her hand and mumbled, “All of me is here.”

“You should be up there!” The station master growled, gesturing in the direction of the platform.

“Now, Gilly, she didn’t fall on purpose,” the conductor said. Taking in the sight of Ellie’s arms around Curtis’s neck, he said, “Glad to see you’re alright, Miss.” Extending his arm, he asked, “Do you need a hand, Mr. Locken?”

“What are you doing off the train?” Gilly barked. “Isn’t it the conductor’s duty to make sure everyone disembarks safely with all of their belongings?”

“Yes, but I thought this was more important.”

David’s gaze traveled to the hole beneath the arm of Ellie’s dress, which afforded a view of an indecent expanse of her chemise, along with skin that should have been covered by her dress.

HIs blazing eyes spearing Curtis, David shouted, “What did you do to her?”

“Now, hold on a minute.” the conductor grabbed and held David’s arm as he strained to move closer. “Curtis Locken traveled my train a few weeks back on his way here from Georgia, and he was nothing but a gentleman.”

Curtis managed to pull away from Ellie enough that he could slide out of his frock coat. Ellie moaned and reached for him again. As he eased Ellie’s arms into his coat, she cried, “Ow!” and tried to get away from him. He finished putting the coat on her so she was adequately covered.

“Stop!” David commanded, yanking his arm free. Running to Ellie, he scooped her up in his arms and headed off toward her house.

“I’ll take care of this,” Gilly said grimly as he watched David carry Ellie away. “You get back to your duties.”

The conductor gave him a nod. Turning to Curtis, he said, “Good luck, sir.”

But Curtis Locken seemed not to hear. He stood and watched Ellie being carried away, the wind beating his shirt against his body as rapidly as his heart beat within his chest.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Ellie had fallen plenty of times, from fences, while jumping from rock to rock across a stream, and while chasing chickens, but those had been in her younger years when she wasn’t as tall or curvy as she was now.

The arms around her were pressing too hard on her bruises. Someone was breathing on her in ragged gasps. She felt unbalanced by uneven steps. There was a bad smell, too. This wasn’t right. Another set of arms should be around her, a firmer chest that rumbled when the sweet, deep voice said her name. Who was that? Was he from a dream? She didn’t know. She only knew that the person jostling her was not him.

She opened her eyes to see David’s face above her, the trees bordering the path jostling in her vision with his stumbling progress. “Put me down,” she said, squirming in an attempt to get away.

David stopped, his chest heaving, his arms still tight around her. “But you fell…and that man, he… he…”

Ellie stilled. “What man?”

David looked confused. “The one at the station. He, he carried you away, and tore…” David stopped, his mouth settling in a disapproving line.

“I can walk now,” Ellie said, pushing against David’s chest.

The man was a vague memory, but a pleasant one. She recalled that he’d grabbed her roughly enough to leave bruises on her arms while his muscles strained to pull her from the path of a moving train. She recalled an angular jaw beneath deep blue eyes, and a gray hat covering all but the curling dark blond ends of her not-too-gentle rescuer’s hair.

She wasn’t too clear on their conversation. Her head and back hurt. She had the vague feeling that she had reason to be embarrassed if she ever saw him again. What had occurred, exactly? Something inappropriate? Was it her dress? It seemed even more ill-fitting now than before, although it was hard to tell while clutched in David’s arms. Was it something she’d said? Could it have been something he said? For all she knew, he was a scoundrel of the worst kind. Nevertheless, she recalled that his voice was like drifting on a slow river crowded by honeysuckle hanging over both banks.

David finally dropped Ellie onto her feet so abruptly that she staggered. Reaching out to slide his arms around her again, he said, “You see? You can’t stand up straight. You need me to carry you.”

“No!” Ellie willed her legs to straighten enough to keep her balance. It felt as if her back was one big bruise, and her head pounded like a horse was running circles inside her skull. “I can walk.” She glanced up through her wind-tossed hair at David’s sweaty face. ”You’re all worn out. Why don’t you go home and get some rest?”

“I’ll see you home first.” Then he gave his armpit a vigorous scratching while his gaze skimmed her head. “Is your mama goin’ to be upset over your missing bonnet?”

That was the last thing Ellie was worried about. She concentrated on putting one foot before the other, feeling even more sore than the time she’d stepped on a loose rock and tumbled down a hill. She found that it helped to grip the lapels of the jacket she was wearing. Where had it come from? Oh, yes. The man with the sweetly rumbling voice.

David followed her the rest of the way to her house, asking her every ten steps if she was feeling all right. “Yes,” she answered wearily each time, even though her inclination was to tell him she’d feel better if he would leave her alone.

When Ellie limped up the walk to her house, David tried pushing past to reach the latch ahead of her, but he never made it to the door. He only managed to jostle her so that she was turned sideways when the door suddenly sprung open, showing her brother, Jack’s surprised face just before the door smacked into Ellie’s fresh bruises. She cried out and lost her balance, the frock coat tails flying outward in a heart-stopping moment that felt eerily like falling off the train platform.

A mighty yank on her skirt abruptly cut off her air as it tore the oversized stitches loose from the back of her bodice. Dizzy, her headache thumping harder than before, Ellie glanced up to thank Jack for pulling her back from the edge of the porch. He blinked in surprise at the damage he’d done. Letting go of her skirt, Jack watched the back of it sag into folds onto the porch floorboards, where the wind batted the loose fabric like a kitten with a ball of yarn.

“Sorry El,” Jack mumbled somberly, looking from David to Ellie and back again. Although Ellie looked the most like their father, Jack was close to the image of Papa with his slender build and dark hair. “I was just trying to keep you from falling.”

Jack’s shorter twin, Jesse, would have had a good laugh about the situation, like Papa. His light hair hung over eyes took in everything, hoping to find adventure.

“Thank you anyway,” Ellie said, giving him a wry smile. “At least the front of my skirt is still attached.”

“She fell off the train platform,” David blurted. “Before I could save her, a stranger grabbed her and dragged her off to the side just as the train came in so no one could see what he was doing.”

Jack’s eyes widened.

“It wasn’t like that,” Ellie said, hoping that her fuzzy memories served her well. “I am safe and sound, as you can see.”

“Only because I carried her home,” David said, “Well, until she made me put her down.” He placed a hand on her shoulder.

Ellie gathered what was left of her ruined skirt in her hands, stepped out from beneath David’s touch, and slid past Jack into the house. That’s when she noticed Jack’s slicked down hair beneath his hat. He wore a clean shirt, and smelled good, like soap. She stopped to ask, “Where are you going?”

“Bremmer’s.” Jack wrinkled his nose and asked, “What’s that smell?”

Ellie sniffed the air. There was that foul odor again, as if someone had walked through the pasture without looking. She glanced at David. That was just what he would do.

As she limped into the house, Linnea looked up from stirring a pot on the stove and asked, “What’s all that commotion?” Catching sight of her daughter, Linnea quickly set the pot aside and hurried toward Ellie. “What happened?”

Having to tell it all seemed like too much work. All Ellie wanted to do was lie down. “Jack hit me with the door.”

“Jack?”

“He didn’t know I was there.”

“How can he not know you’re there?” Linnea moved closer, her head reaching the level of her daughter’s nose. “Everyone knows when you’re there.”

Ellie did not take offense. She was well aware what her mother thought of her. Linnea made no secret that she despaired of teaching her taller-than-averaged daughter any ladylike ways that might help get her married.

“What are you wearing? A man’s jacket?”

Ellie sighed. “Yes.”

“Why?”

“I just took a tumble, Mama, and I may have torn something.”

“How can you be unsure? Your skirt is nearly ripped off your body.” Linnea reached up and touched her daughter’s neck. “You’ve got a line across your throat. Tell me everything that happened.”

“My memory is not working exactly right,” Ellie admitted.

“Come and sit down.” Linnea moved toward her daughter, then stopped and turned her head to one side. “What is that odor? You didn’t… “ her voice lowered to a whisper, “…didn’t soil yourself?”

“No!”

“Turn around.”

Ellie obeyed. As her mother helped her get the frock coat off, Ellie sucked in her breath from the fresh pain radiating from her back and head. Linnea gasped. “You’ve got manure on your back, and your chemise… and your skirt…oh, my.”

Ellie suddenly felt too warm. David must have seen the manure, and, oh, no, her chemise! Curtis Locken must have, too, and who knew how many townspeople?

A vague recollection of a warm, masculine touch on the sensitive flesh beneath her arm sent a tremor through her. Had someone actually touched her there? Was it David? She shuddered, but could only recall him carrying her with the coat on. That could only mean… Curtis Locken.

“Get out of that dress,” Linnea ordered. “I’ll heat some water and help you clean up.”

Ellie went to her room and struggled to remove her dress, tearing it even more in the process. It seemed as if each new movement created a fresh ache. Was there any part of her that didn’t hurt?

Finally free of the stinking pink calico, Ellie folded it so that the manure was in the center. Then she gave the soiled jacket a forlorn glance. What must Curtis Locken think of her? He had saved her from being run over by a train, and she had stolen his jacket and smeared it with manure. She could never look at him again.

When her mother came in with a kettle of water and a cloth, Ellie said, “Can we get that jacket cleaned?”

Linnea looked at it with a critical eye. “Whose jacket is it? It’s too fancy to be David’s.”

“Curtis Locken’s.” In spite of her determination to never see him again, a thrill of anticipation ran through Ellie as she spoke his name.

“I don’t believe I know him.”

“He hasn’t been here long,” Ellie said as her mother poured water into her washing bowl and moistened the cloth. “And he has the nicest voice I ever heard.”

“A man’s worth isn’t in his voice,” Linnea said. “It’s in his heart.”

“I know,” Ellie sighed, “but if he has a good heart and a nice voice besides, then it’s all for the good.”

Once Ellie was cleaned up, Linnea applied liniment to her shoulder. When she pressed on Ellie’s back, Ellie gasped and twisted away.

“Did Jack hit your back, too?”

“No, that was from the fall.” Ellie didn’t want to admit falling because of her own poor sewing job. She already knew she was a disappointment, and didn’t want to hear any more lectures about it. She already hurt enough.

“Where did you fall?”

Ellie braced herself. “On the train track, Mama, but you can see that I’m just fine.”

The shock on Linnea’s face seemed to keep her from speaking.

“It was no further than that time I fell off the chicken fence.”

“A train track is far different from a chicken fence,” Linnea said tightly. “It could have been so much worse.”

“But it wasn’t, Mama.”

Linnea gingerly picked up the pink pile of fabric.

“Just throw that away,” Ellie said, glad that her mother was focused on something else.

“I can wash it,” Linnea said. “If we can save the jacket, we can save the dress.” Linnea examined the surviving stitches more closely. Then she raised her head with a knowing look. “I see. Shall I throw this out, too?” She pushed her hand into the pocket and pulled out Ellie’s whittling knife and whetstone.

“No, not that!” Ellie jumped so fast that her head felt like it wobbled on her shoulders, and she felt every bruise. “Please.”

Linnea held the knife and stone out. “I don’t understand you, Ellie, but you’re my daughter, and I strive to do right by you, I really do.”

Ellie held the familiar knife in her hands like an old friend. The blade was becoming so worn with repeated sharpening that she’d soon have to replace the knife itself, but she was putting it off as long as possible. “Thank you, Mama.”

“Perhaps you’d better lie down for awhile.”

Gratefully, Ellie slipped on her gray dress and laid down to rest while her mother went out of the room and closed the door behind her. Every position Ellie tried seemed to cause too much pain. Finally, she sat up with a feather pillow stuffed behind her back. She thought about finishing the rabbit carving she had hidden beside her bed. It was the closest of the carvings she’d hidden around the room, none bigger than her hand, all tucked out of her mother’s sight.

Instead, she pulled out one of her last pieces of carving wood. Idly slicing through the bark, she found it shaping itself into the figure of a man with proportions very similar to Papa’s. While she was pleased with the design, it was too close to her heart. Blinking back tears, Ellie tucked the figure of the man out of sight and pulled out the rabbit.

The ache of her body was lessened by the pleasure of carving the rabbit. Watching the rest of it emerge from the wood with its comical ears folded over, a little like the low top hat Curtis Locken wore, made Ellie catch herself thinking of how she might carve Mr. Locken’s likeness into a piece of wood. It was a pleasant thought. She leaned her head back on her pillow, closing her eyes to better recall his features. She lamented their unfortunate introduction. Why did he wait for every train? Was it to welcome a lovely, soft spoken fiancee? What would the girl Curtis Locken loved look like anyway? Would she have light hair or dark? Perhaps she would be one of those rare red-headed women. There was one at the saloon, a dance hall girl. Is that the type Curtis Locken would like? How could she find out why he waited at the station?

The next thing she knew, her father was in the room, looking sideways at her as he shuffled his feet back and forth, back and forth, in strange little steps as rhythmic as a drum beat. She’d never seen him move like that, as if it doing the steps to some kind of strange, primitive dance.

“Papa?” Ellie sat up, feeling no pain from her bruises, but when she tried to swing her legs over the edge of the bed, her quilt trapped her feet. She’d always loved this quilt, a joint effort of her mother and grandmother when Ellie was a little girl. They’d created a log cabin pattern pieced together with sunny yellow and vibrant orange fabric, with some cool pine green worked in for balance. Although faded a bit, it remained Ellie’s favorite blanket. Until now.

As she kicked against its bonds, Wilburn gave his daughter a sad little smile. Behind him were the ruined supply wagons he’d accompanied toward Bent’s Fort, where he’d been commissioned to join the military band to play music for visiting dignitaries, but he’d never made it. The broken arrows stuck into the wood, the missing supplies, and the hardly recognizable bodies of old Dan Gregory and simple-minded Reg Owens suggested an Indian attack from Indians rebelling at the order to move onto a reservation.

Where Papa had ended up was anyone’s guess. After three months with no sign of him, none of the guesses ended with the hope that he was still alive.

Now he was back, and all Ellie wanted to do was run to him, grab him in a hug, and feel him pick her up off the floor and spin her around like he had when she was little. Fighting the quilt wrapped around her legs with fresh energy, she called, “Papa!”

Keeping his eyes on his daughter, Wilburn pulled out his harmonica and raised it to his mouth, but instead of the lively tunes she was used to, he blew somber notes in a steady rhythm. They slid up the scale and back down again, like chanting, that matched the deliberate beats of his shoes stomping and shuffling, stomping and shuffling, stomping and shuffling, as he moved further and further away from her.

“Don’t go!” Ellie cried. At last she forced her feet free of the quilt and stood, ready to run to him. But then the quilt rose up and clamped her shoulders tightly as her father passed through the far wall like mist, his somber music fading away.

“No!” Ellie cried, reaching out toward the place where her father had been.

When the quilt gave her a firm shake, Ellie blinked in surprise. The grip on her wasn’t from the quilt sagging halfway to the board floor from her mattress. It was her brother, Jesse, with both hands firmly on her shoulders.

Grabbing at him, she caught one of his suspender straps and cried, “I saw Papa!”

Linnea appeared in the doorway, her face white, a hand pressed to the high collar of her dress, eyes wide with worry as she stared at her daughter.

“It was a dream.” Jesse’s voice was uncharacteristically rough. He pulled her hand off his suspender. “You were thrashing around and calling for Papa.”

Ellie’s eyes blazed. “It was not like a dream,” she said. “He was looking at me, really looking at me. And he was playing his harmonica. Jesse, he’s alive!”

Jesse cast a glance at their mother, who looked as if she might be sick as she pressed her hand against the doorjamb. Jesse turned to glare at Ellie. “Stop it.”

“Mama, you believe me, don’t you?”

Linnea straightened. “You must have hit your head when you fell.”

“I did, but that’s not what made me see Papa.”

“Head injuries can be serious,” Linnea said. “I may need to send for the doctor.”

“No.” Ellie shook her head, and immediately regretted the fresh stab of pain it brought her. There was no extra money for a doctor. Mama’s sewing, Jack’s work at the printer’s, and Jesse’s odd jobs around town brought in enough money to just get by. Ellie bit her lip against a wave of dizziness until it ebbed. Why wouldn’t they listen to her? Seeing Papa again had changed her whole world. She knew his body hadn’t actually been in her room, but some part of him had come to her, a living part that could reach her through dreams.

Jesse’s voice softened. “It was just a dream.” He helped Ellie sit down on her straw mattress where she balanced on the edge, since the mattress had a clear indentation in the center from a winter’s worth of sleeping on it. She idly wondered if Jesse might help her turn it over. That might help her bruises feel better. She couldn’t wait until fall when fresh straw would be ready to restuff her mattress.

Linnea looked back over her shoulder. “What shall…?” she began. She stopped, looked at Jesse, then finished in a rush, “What shall I tell the sheriff?”

Jesse put a protective hand on Ellie’s shoulder. “Well, he’s here for Ellie, so you should tell him to come in and get it over with.”

 

 

Chapter 4

 

“What does he want?” Ellie asked, her chest pounding like a convict breaking rocks. She searched her fuzzy memory for anything she might have done this morning that was worse than she had recalled. Was the sheriff here because the rip in her dress showed an indecent expanse of underthings? She fingered the neck of her dress. That wasn’t her fault. Well, it was in a way, but she hadn’t meant for her hasty stitches to pull loose.

Why wasn’t her memory clearer? Her head throbbed as if reminding her that it had recently been smacked against an unforgiving train rail. “I don’t want to see him,” Ellie said in a small voice. She ignored the faint sound of sleigh bells knocking at her brain. A good night’s sleep had to make her head right again. “I can’t see him. I can’t see anyone. I’m not well.”

Before she finished speaking, Sheriff Childs appeared, his jingling spurs quieting as he planted his boots so wide apart that he took up her whole doorway.

Ellie gripped Jesse’s hand, willing him to stay with her. When he covered her hand with his free one, she sighed.

Sheriff Childs turned toward her, his tanned skin as dark as an Indian’s. Lines etched from years of riding horses under the Colorado sun ran from the corners of his nose to the unsmiling ends of his mouth. More lines were carved between his eyes, which squinted even when he was indoors. For good measure, wrinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes, too, disappearing into his gray hairline. In spite of her trepidation, Ellie couldn’t help thinking that the sheriff’s face would be an interesting one to carve.

Catching a glimpse of Ellie seated on the bed in her simple gray dress with hair spilling over her shoulders in dark, cascading waves, the streak of moonlight white adding luminosity to her wide, blue gaze, the sheriff cleared his throat. Averting his eyes, he twisted his sweat-stained hat in his hands. “Miss Eleanor Ransom,” he said in a voice as gruff as a croaking frog, “you are hereby banned from the train station.”

“What?” Ellie tried to stand, but Jesse kept a firm hand on her. “Why?”

“Station master’s sayin’ you’re careless, and having a fatality on the tracks’d be bad for business.”

“It was an accident!” Ellie protested.

“One he don’t want repeated,” the sheriff said, studying the room’s whitewashed wall at the head of the bed. “Now you mark my words if’n you don’t want to spend a night in a jail cell.”

Linnea gasped, but Sheriff Childs did not even spare her a glance. “Trust me, the beds in that place aren’t the same as the nice one you’ve got right there.” He nodded sideways at Ellie, his eyes still avoiding her. “Jus’ stay away from the station.”

Ellie clenched her fists, her fear turning to indignation. What had happened at the station could have happened to anyone, especially a woman in a skirt as long as a ship’s sail. “It’s just because I’m a poor seamstress!” Ellie blurted.

The sheriff paused, finally looking directly at Ellie. “That don’t make no sense.”

“She’s not well,” Linnea explained. “She hit her head when she fell.”

“All the more reason to keep away.” Sheriff Childs turned and disappeared through the doorway, his spurs clanking more faintly with each retreating step until they sounded like distant sleigh bells.

“Think about what he’s saying,” Jesse said, lowering himself to sit beside Ellie. “He might be right. I heard that you almost got killed.” He gently squeezed Ellie’s hand before pulling away, which was as close as he would ever get to saying, “I love you.”

“Is that what David told you?” Ellie was so hot with anger that she wanted to dunk her head in the river. Or, better yet, dunk David’s head in it. “I had plenty of time to get out of the way. I only fell because of the wind, and that… that… stupid dress!”

Linnea put her hand up. “I looked more closely at that stupid dress, and it was not sewn properly.”

Guilt cooled Ellie’s anger, and she dropped her shoulders. “I don’t like sewing.”

“But look what working with wood has done to you.” Linnea walked to the bedside and lifted one of Ellie’s hands where a small hairline cut was healing on her finger. “That’s not from Jack hitting you with the door.”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Ellie said.

At the same time, Jesse asked, “Jack hit her?” as he quickly tucked something into his pocket.

“He didn’t know I was there.” Ellie folded her fingers and said quietly, “Getting a cut is no worse than being poked by a needle.”

Jesse snorted. Linnea gave him a sharp look. “What?” Jesse asked. “She has a point.”

Ellie could have hugged him.

“What’s for supper?” Jesse asked, then without waiting for an answer, he added, “Where’s Jack?”

“Fried chicken for supper,” Mama replied, “and your brother’s making a delivery to the Bremmer’s.”

Jesse shot to his feet. “The Bremmer’s? As in Maisie Bremmer?”

“No, he took a skirt I sewed to Maisie’s mother.”

Mrs. Bremmer seemed only able to afford either a skirt or blouse each time she had Mama sew for her. Ellie couldn’t help wondering why Mrs. Bremmer didn’t just wait until she could afford a whole dress.

Maybe it was because of all the children she had, seven of them, with Maisie being the oldest. Ellie had noticed Jack stealing glances at Maisie in church, but now Jesse? What was it about Maisie that appealed to both her brothers, who were so unlike that some people wouldn’t guess they were related?

Mrs. Bremmer seemed to like wrapping Maisie up like a general store peppermint stick, all done up in pink and white. It was a daring color palette. Brown, gray, and dark blue were much more practical for mature ladies, according to what Mama advised her customers. The only bright colors Mama allowed herself to wear were on aprons she pieced together from scraps of sewing projects she’d done for other ladies. Many of her clients still preferred red, forest green, and every once in awhile something like a print with little purple flowers scattered across a light background. Ellie still liked wearing the apron with pockets made from scraps of that fabric.

So why had Mama made Ellie sew a pink monstrosity? Since the quilt Grandma helped make didn’t have a stitch of pink in it, perhaps Mama had thought it the proper color for parents to advertise their daughters. Prospective bride right here!

Ellie giggled.

Mama’s eyebrows lifted, eyes wary. “Now don’t you go getting a case of the hysterics,” Mama warned. “I”m going to make you some tea. Stay with her,” she ordered Jesse, then marched out of the room.

“I’d like some chicken,” Ellie protested.

“If you’re having hysterics, you could choke,” Mama answered in her no nonsense voice.

Ellie gave Jesse a helpless glance, hoping he’d speak up for her. Instead, he pushed his hand into his pocket and pulled out the carved rabbit. “Didn’t think you’d want Mama to see this,” he said, but he wasn’t looking at Ellie. His gaze was aimed at her window, jaw clenched, gray eyes stormy. Even though he resembled Mama, he was quite handsome in his own way.

“Thank you,” Ellie said, taking the wooden rabbit, nearly warm enough to be alive from her brother’s touch.

A loud bang sounded outside, making them both jump. Jesse raced to the window and Ellie struggled to her feet, the thought of attacking Indians crowding her mind. They must have taken Papa, and now they’d come back for his children.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

“It’s John Haun,” Jesse said. “He’s attacking the wood pile again.”

“Why does he keep doing that?” Ellie asked. Ever since Papa had gone missing, John had been coming around, doing odd jobs at the house. “I don’t like it.” Ellie moved in beside Jesse, who was her same height. She gave him a nudge. “Go tell him that chopping is your chore.”

“If he wants to do it, who am I to interfere?” Jesse replied. “Every man is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“There you go sounding all lawerly again.”

“Law is an interesting profession,” Jesse replied, giving the muslin curtains a flick. “So many people doing so many different things for so many reasons.”

“But he’s trying to get Mama sweet on him,” Ellie replied. “He’s a widower, after all, and now Mama doesn’t seem to believe that Papa’s alive.”

Jesse quirked an eyebrow. “Just as long as Mama doesn’t invite him in to eat any of her chicken, he can chop all day.” He moved to the door. “If you need anything, let me know.”

“Mama told you to stay with me so I don’t get hysterical.”

Jesse grinned. “I’ll fetch your tea so you can get back to normal.”

“Bring me some chicken, too. The rest of me might be injured, but my stomach is fine.”

Jesse gave her a slight nod. “After I fetch Jack home for supper.” He disappeared out the door. “Mama, I’ve got to go,” he called. “Ellie’s not hysterical anymore.”

There was no answer. Then Ellie heard the front door open and close. When she looked out the window, she saw her mother talking to John, smiling and waving her hands. John’s eyebrows were raised about as far as they could go. Was Mama talking about Ellie?

Opening the window, Ellie heard John say, “I thought maybe you were in town.” Ellie’s eyes narrowed. He was trying to convince her mother that he’d come to chop wood when he thought the family was away? With all the commotion and the comings and goings, he had to know they were home from half a mile away.

Linnea tipped her head down slightly and brushed at a strand of hair at the nape of her neck. “That was just Ellie who went to town. I’ve been home.”

“Industrious,” John said with a smile that looked totally inappropriate to Ellie. “A mighty fine quality in a woman.”

This was getting too personal for Ellie’s taste. No one had to look more than two blocks to see that there were more men than women in Rambling. A woman as pretty as Mama was bound to have admirers, but Mama was already married. She should tell this guy, John, that she already had a perfectly good husband.

Ellie put a hand to her forehead. “Mama,” she called in a warbling voice. “My…tea?”

Linnea whirled around, her cheeks pink. “Oh, yes, of course.” She turned back to John. “Excuse me, Mr. Haun.”

“Certainly.”

Ellie watched John watch Mama walk back to the house, and she didn’t like where he was looking.

Ellie hobbled out into the front room. “Mama, he’s far too familiar.”

“What do you mean, familiar? We’ve known him ever since we moved here.”

“He’s too… friendly…with you.”

“Don’t be silly.”

Ellie waited in the silence for Mama to say something else, something about her husband, but when she didn’t, Ellie blurted, “Mama, you haven’t forgotten about Papa, have you?”

Linnea stopped pouring tea, her hand frozen in air as if it had turned to stone. “How can you ask that? I will never forget your father.” She dipped her head and finished pouring, faster, sloshing tea out over the lip of the cup.

“Sorry, Mama,” Ellie whispered. “It’s just that sometimes it seems like you are moving on without him.”

Linnea looked up sharply. “What else is there to do? I wish with all my heart that your father were still alive, that he would come whistling through that doorway again. I’d love to hear his harmonica playing in the evening, having folks drop by for a Saturday dance like they used to. But wishing doesn’t make it so.”

“We don’t know he’s dead,” Ellie said, tears rising in her eyes. “No one ever found his body.”

In a trembling voice, Linnea said, “Indians don’t tend to leave bodies in one piece.”

Ellie fought tears. She just wanted her father back, to have things go back to the way they were. She imagined his laugh, his jolly tunes, how he made the harmonica come alive with music that made a body glad to be breathing, in spite of any aches or pains.

Why did he have to go to the fort? They didn’t need the extra money they offered because the general had heard that Papa was the best musician in the west. Someone else could have played for his concert. There weren’t many who could hold a tune, but there were some.

Now Papa was out there somewhere, still alive she was sure, and Ellie didn’t know how to bring him home.

The possibility of him escaping flashed through Ellie’s mind again, like a spark drifting up from a fire. John Colter managed it by outrunning his captors, bare feet and all. She thought that Papa must be alive, but how could he have managed it when the other men were killed? Had he even been with the wagons when they were attacked? Perhaps he’d taken a horse and gone on ahead to the fort for some reason.

So why wasn’t he back?

Ellie thought of stories her father had told her about how some men left their families after the war and headed west to start new lives without their wives or children. Some men even took on new names, making them free to do as they pleased, with no one to account to but themselves.

Is that what Papa had done?

No. Papa loved them, loved Mama, loved Ellie and his two boys. He would never leave them alone on purpose.

Linnea dropped into a chair at the table and covered her face with her hands. Ellie went to her side and knelt, ignoring the pain of her injuries. She placed her arms around her mother. “I’m sorry, Mama. I didn’t mean to cause you more sorrow.” Mother and daughter cried together until the door burst open and Jesse called, “Look who I found!”

Expecting to see Jack, Ellie turned stiffly, the bruises tightened from her cramped posture. Her eyes widened when she saw Curtis Locken regarding her, his handsome mouth a straight line, his eyebrows drawn down with concern.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Curtis could not have contrived a lovelier picture than the one laid out before him. Eleanor knelt by her mother, her face turned toward him, lovely eyes wide, soft lips slightly parted in surprise. It was a picture of sweet devotion and utter vulnerability. He imagined himself the object of her affection, feeling honored to keep her safe from whatever sorrow had dampened her eyelashes.

Then something twisted inside him. Wasn’t that what he’d felt for fair-haired Annabelle? She had presented herself as needing his love and protection, and how had that turned out?

“I think you know Ellie,” Jesse said with a grin.

“Isn’t it Eleanor?”

“That’s what David calls her,” Jack said, looking rather wilted as he walked in behind his brother.

“We usually call her Ellie,” Linnea said, rising to her feet and wiping her face with her patchwork apron. “Ellie, when did you make this gentleman’s acquaintance?”

Ellie got to her feet with small stops and starts, then stood rigidly. Curtis could only guess that she was fighting not to show the aches she must be suffering. “He was at the train station this morning,” she replied. Turning to their visitor, she said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Locken, we have every intention of laundering your coat.”

“Oh,” Curtis said. That was the last thing on his mind right now. “That won’t be necessary.”

“Oh, but it is,” Linnea insisted. She moved toward Curtis, gracefully dodging the table. “I’m Mrs. Ransom, mother of Ellie and Jesse and Jack.”

Curtis nodded. “Pleasured, ma’am. I’m Curtis Locken, recently of Georgia.”

“Charmed,” Linnea said, extending her hand. Curtis took it with gentle fingers and kissed the back of it. He was gratified when Linnea giggled. Seeing a woman’s sorrow brought back around to happiness always made his efforts worthwhile. A smiling woman was a beautiful one, no matter her age or clothing style.

He stole a second glance at Ellie. With her hair down, she looked younger.

“Would you care for some tea?” Linnea asked him.

“Mama,” Jesse interrupted, “I told him you make the best chicken in the world, because he’s not had supper yet.” Before Linnea could reply, Jesse explained, “Lest you worry that I drag every hungry man to your door, Curtis was already coming up the walk when we got back.” He nudged Jack’s shoulder. “Isn’t that so?”

Jack nodded. “Said he was coming to check on someone named Eleanor, and asked if he got the right house.”

“Figured it would only be neighborly to invite him in for a bite to eat, since we’re all so hungry,” Jesse added.

“Ma’am, I don’t mean to impose myself on you,” Curtis protested. “I can get something at the hotel.”

“Nonsense,” Linnea said. “You are already here. It makes no sense to go back to the hotel on an empty stomach. You can ask after Ellie while sitting at the table.”

Curtis did not miss the look of dismay that crossed Ellie’s face. He couldn’t help wondering what she was thinking. Was she embarrassed by their earlier encounter? Or was her mind working like Annabelle’s, trying to think of how she could play him for a fool? Or was she really as she seemed, a spirited girl who was devoted to her family?

“I was going to eat in my room,” Ellie whispered to her mother loud enough for all of them to hear.

“I daresay if you have enough energy to remonstrate me for Mr. Haun, then you have enough energy to sit in a chair for 30 minutes. I won’t make you serve or clear up. Just sit.” Then Linnea’s eyes widened, “Oh, but your hair! For goodness sakes, go and do something with your hair.” She hurried to her daughter, grabbed her arm, and steered her toward a door next to the kitchen. Pushing Ellie through, Linnea followed and shut the door behind them.

Jack and Jesse got on either side of Curtis and led him to the wooden table. Curtis couldn’t help noticing the unusual design of the table legs. “This is beautiful,” he said, bending to examine the handiwork more closely. “I’ve not seen carvings like that before.” Fanciful vines ran up each of the four sturdy legs, with what looked like little faces peering through the leaves.

“Papa made it,” Jack said, dropping into a chair.

Curtis wanted to ask about Papa, to make sure he wasn’t taking his seat in case he should come in and want to eat, too, but Linnea hurried through the doorway at that moment and bustled over to the table. Curtis jumped to his feet.

“Are you quite alright?” Linnea asked, gazing up at him in surprise.

“Yes, ma’am. Where I come from, a gentleman stands in the presence of a lady who is on her feet.”

“Oh,” Linnea said, her eyes going round with surprise. “Well, I don’t know that you need to keep standing while I get supper on.”

“I’d be honored to be of assistance, ma’am.”

“Oh, no, you’re a guest!” Linnea insisted. “I’ll just be a minute.”

Jesse and Jack rose to their feet, casting uncertain glances at their visitor while their mother hurried to the stove and scooped chicken onto a platter. When she returned with the golden fried chicken balanced in her hands, she took another look at her sons.

“Jack?” she asked, “are you alright?”

“Yes.”

Even though he’d just met the young man, Curtis thought that Jack’s answer was anything but convincing.

“Did anything go wrong at the Bremmer’s?”

Jack glanced at Jesse, who grinned back at him. “Not to speak of,” Jack said with a hint of sarcasm. “Just that Jesse would make a fine courtroom orator.”

Curtis stood behind the empty chair, feeling more uncomfortable with each word the brothers spoke. They sounded too much like him and his cousin.

A brief knock on the door didn’t give anyone time to respond before the door swung open and David clomped inside with a dozen wilted wildflowers clutched in his hand. He stopped to stare at Curtis as if he were a marauding grizzly bear.

“You!” David jabbed the flowers at Curtis. “What are you doing here?”

“Having supper,” Linnea said, “and if you’ll go wash your hands, you can have some, too.”

“Just how big a chicken did you cook, Mama?” Jesse asked.

“Big enough to share with friends.” Linnea picked up a bowl of potatoes. “Scoot, David, do as I say.”

On his way to the kitchen water bowl, David dropped the flowers on the table. Then he dunked his big hands in the water with such force that it splashed out over his boots. Stepping back, he mumbled a mild oath.

“David!” Linnea scolded, while Jesse covered his mouth with his hand to hide a smile.

Even though it wasn’t his house, Curtis couldn’t bite back the words, “That’s no way to talk around a lady.” If he had spoken like that at his house, he would have been thrashed, and doubly so if a lady was present.

David stared from Linnea to Curtis and back again. Finally, he shook his hands out over the basin. “Sorry, Miz Ransom,” he muttered. To Curtis, he said, “How long you plan to stay before going back to where you came from?”

Curtis was wondering if he should even reply. This David character was certainly free in expressing his feelings. Was it the way he was raised, or was he missing some mental component in his brain?

Before Curtis could decide on the best course of action, Linnea said patiently, “David, that is not the proper way to speak to guests.”

“Sorry,” David grumbled. “He just doesn’t belong here.”

Curtis had to agree that the sharp, clean Colorado air was different from the hot, moist days he’d spent as a child in Georgia. Yet he felt a freedom here that his home had somehow lost in the tangles of war.

“Go ahead, sit down, and we’ll all feel better once we eat,” Linnea promised.

David looked at Curtis, Jesse, and Jack all standing behind their chairs. He remained standing, too, until Ellie slipped out of her room, dressed in a plain dark gray dress, her luxuriant hair pulled back and tied at the back of her neck with a white ribbon. She looked simply beautiful.

“Come and sit, Ellie,” Linnea said as she set down a bowl of green beans. “None of these gentlemen will take their chairs until we do.”

As she moved toward an empty chair at the table, Curtis couldn’t stop himself from calling out, “Allow me.” He hurried around the table to hold the chair for her.

When Ellie looked up at him with surprise, he smiled at her and nodded. Ellie sat down stiffly, as if she wasn’t sure what was expected of her.

Before Linnea could seat herself, Curtis moved to her chair and held it for her. ”Why, thank you,” she said, and sat down at the head of the table.

Perched stiffly on a chair next to Linnea and across from Ellie, David muttered, “They could have done that themselves.”

Jack was next to Ellie while Jesse took a place next to David. Curtis hesitated as he returned to his chair at the end of the table across from Linnea. “I hope I’m not taking Mr. Ransom’s place.”

The sudden stillness made him pause and look around the table in confusion. Had he said something wrong?

Linnea looked at him with barely a smile. “Mr. Ransom is no longer with us.”

Ellie looked as if she was about to speak, then dropped her gaze to her hands gripping the table.

“I’m sorry,” Curtis said, feeling a flush climb up his face.

“How were you to know?” Linnea asked with a thin smile. “Go ahead, sit down.” She gestured to his chair. Curtis sat. It seemed as if everyone around the table took a breath, except David, who grinned savagely at Curtis.

Once the blessing was said, Jesse and Jack dug into the bowls, scooping food onto their plates while Linnea asked, “Well, Mr. Locken, what brings you to Colorado?”

Curtis hesitated. He didn’t feel the need to give her details, but he didn’t wish to be dishonest. “It was time for a fresh start, ma’am.”

“I see.” Linnea glanced down, smoothing the table cloth with her fingers while she said, “Sometimes there’s nothing left but to start over.”

“What is your profession?” Jesse asked.

“You might was well tell him,” Jack said. “He’ll ask in all kinds of different ways until he finds out what he wants to know.”

“I’m in the importing and exporting business.”

“What type of imports?” Linnea asked.

“I’ve already had a hand in moving merchandise from India, England, Europe, and the Mediterranean.”

Imagining him standing on the bridge of a ship headed to exotic ports, Ellie asked, “Have you been to all those places?”

“Not personally.”

Jesse shook his head. “Seems you’d get to those places faster from the east coast than here.”

“My uncle owns a shipping line, and he and my cousin have brought home many treasures.” Curtis’s face clouded. “But after, well, certain events, I’ve worked toward starting my own line of goods. Besides bringing hard-to-find products here, there is quite an interest back east about the western frontier. Many people don’t want to travel through the wilderness themselves, but they want the experience of owning objects from the wild west. Some restaurants offer food like buffalo, and some people are looking for lamps or chairs made from elk and deer antlers.”

“That’s very interesting,” Linnea said.

Jesse leaned forward. “Do all those fancy fellows in Georgia hold chairs for ladies?”

“Someone does,” Curtis replied. “Once it was slaves, but as slavery is illegal, the gentlemen have stepped in.”

“Why do it, if they’re able to sit down by theirselves?” David asked before taking a large bite of a chicken leg that was gripped in his fingers.

“Common courtesy and respect,” Curtis answered. “Some women are in a… delicate condition. Standing by as they are seated allows assistance should the need arise.”

“Fancy talk,” David grumbled past a mouth full of partially chewed food. “If someone held my chair, I’d think they might pull it out from under me.”

Curtis managed to hide a smile. Life in the untamed west certainly provided some contrasts to what he was used to. But the food looked good. As he served himself a piece of chicken, he said, “Mrs. Ransom, this smells divine.”

Linnea smiled and dabbed her mouth with her napkin.

As soon as dinner was over, Ellie stood and began gathering dishes. Curtis stood, too. He could not imagine Annabelle offering to do anything as distasteful as washing dirty dishes.

“You really needn’t,” Ellie said, looking up at him. He gazed back at her. Surely Ellie couldn’t be masking her true behavior just because they had guests, as this appeared to be a normal routine for her.

“No,” Linnea said, rising and placing a hand on her daughter’s arm. “You’ve been up long enough. Go on to your room.”

“I would be honored to help you clear up,” Curtis offered, picking up his plate.

“Go on with you!” Linnea scolded good-naturedly. “Do you want to discredit me? If word got around that I let a guest clean up after his own meal, I wouldn’t be able to show my face in town.”

Curtis didn’t know how to make her understand that he’d learned that position in society and titles didn’t matter. Not anymore. But he didn’t want to cause her any distress. “No, ma’am.” Curtis replaced the dish and stood awkwardly.

“We shall return your coat once we launder it,” Linnea promised.

“I can have a washer woman do it,” Curtis offered.

“It’s already soaking in my special laundering solution,” Linnea said. “It will be returned to you like new.”

“You are most kind, ma’am.” Curtis turned to Ellie. “Miss Ransom, I hope you will feel better very soon.”

Ellie looked at him curiously. He wished with all his heart that he could tell what she was thinking. Were her thoughts truly as pure and innocent as they appeared, or were they like those of someone else with an innocent face, but who had harbored a craving inside to get attention at any cost?

He didn’t know yet, but he was determined to find out.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

After Curtis Locken left with, “I thank you for a most charming evening,” David stayed.

As her mother cleared the table and worked in the kitchen, she seemed to have forgotten about telling Ellie to get some rest, so Ellie decided to satisfy her curiosity. Turning to David, she whispered, “Did you get to see the new shipment?”

David’s features softened. “Only after I saw you safely home. Do you remember? I carried you.”

“Yes, I remember.”

David’s gaze grew puzzled. “You looked funny. Can people sleep with their eyes open? Because it looked like you were.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.”

David scratched the back of his neck, then pulled his hand around to the front and picked something out from under his fingernails. “I got a whole set of fine gouges. There are some other things, too.” David looked up from his fingernails to smile at Ellie. “Come over and see them.”

That was both the first and last thing she wanted to do. Although she’d love to see the tools, she’d rather not go to his house. Better yet, she’d like to use the tools at her house. She could already feel the satisfaction of carving the warm wood, taking away the parts that hid the beautiful objects trapped inside. It gave her great satisfaction to free the figures that she recognized in the bits of wood she carved into whimsical little animals, trees with twisted trunks, and even Indian teepees. But she wanted to do more, to incorporate her carvings into furniture like Papa had done on the dining table with borrowed tools. When Mama wasn’t around, Papa had even handed Ellie a gouge so the two of them could work together.

Mama had complained about coming home to find her table turned upside down. How was she supposed to feed everyone? And all those wood shavings scattered on her floor had to be swept up. Yet when it was done, even Mama had to admit that she had a unique table like no other in the world.

“Not even the queen of England could lay claim to a table as fancy as this,” Wilburn said, sliding an arm around his wife’s shoulders as they gazed at the finished project.

“I daresay you’re right,” Linnea agreed. “You’ve outdone yourself, Wil.” When he dropped a kiss on his wife’s head, Linnea blushed. “Now I’ve got to get busy and sweep up all those shavings.”

“I can do it,” Wilburn offered.

“You’ve done enough,” Linnea said.

“Anything for you, my love.”

Once the table was done, Ellie and Papa talked about carving the chair legs, too, but they hadn’t gotten to it before Papa had to return the borrowed tools because their owner was moving away. “We can just use our pocket knives, Papa,” Ellie suggested.

“That we could,” Papa agreed. “We’ll give it a try, then.” But they’d never gotten around to it.

Now Ellie understood that gouges were much better for getting the type of detail they’d created on the table. She imagined starting from the beginning with a fine set of tools, carving the wood as the legs were formed, not after the furniture was built.

Oh, Papa, I miss you. Where are you? Please come home. Ellie hardened her face to keep from crying.

“Hey,” David said. “Don’t be mad. You can come over and use any of my wood tools that you want, even the axes and saws.”

“She’s not a lumberjack,” Mama protested. “She’s a seamstress.”

Ellie sighed. Now was not the time to bring it all up again, not after she’d already hurt Mama’s feelings by talking about John Haun.

“Can I borrow Ellie?” Jesse asked their mother with a grin. “I think she needs an outing.”

Linnea shook her head at her son, a slow smile spreading across her face. “You go out. Leave her here.” She turned toward Ellie. “I thought I told you to get some rest.”

Ellie suddenly realized that was just what she wanted to do.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

Curtis slid his arms into his clean frock coat, which had been returned to the hotel as fresh as new by Ellie’s taller brother, Jack. He sure was a quiet one. If Curtis hadn’t seen him and Jesse eating at the same table and calling the same woman, “Mama,” he wouldn’t have believed they were brothers.

Curtis grabbed his short top hat and strode into the hall, shutting the door on his spartan bed. A small, scuffed table with a pitcher and wash basin on top sat in the far corner, and the utilitarian white curtains hung limply at the window.

As Curtis hurried down the stairs, the train whistle sounded. He slowed at the bottom to let a lady walk by. When she gave him an appreciative glance, he smiled, nodded, and said, “Ma’am.”

As soon as his boots hit the porch, he pushed his hat on his head and dashed across the street to the station, the tails of his frock coat flying. He had to be there in time to see everyone who disembarked.

He slid to a stop at the edge of the platform just as the train came to a hissing stop, layering its scent of coal smoke and dissipating steam over the people waiting on the platform.

The arm on the side of the water tower was swung over to the water tender by a burly train fireman. The train doors opened and passengers began climbing down the steps like busy ants from an anthill. Curtis’s eyes scanned their faces, searching, without seeing who he was looking for.

Disappointment crept over him, but he refused to leave until he was sure he’d caught sight of every passenger. He walked the length of the train clear back to the caboose, gazing in every window, glancing back every few seconds to be sure no one got off without his notice, even though M.J. was hard to miss.

He turned and slowly walked back to the front of the train, dodging men and boys who were busy loading and unloading freight.

A conductor appeared in the doorway of a passenger car with a suitcase in each hand, following a couple dressed in dusty traveling clothes. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs and set the cases down on the platform. “There you go, sir,” he said to the man who was burdened with a bulky carpet bag and hat box, while his wife held a muff in one hand and a parasol in the other. “If you’d like, a porter can help you the rest of the way.”

A lanky boy who looked to be around thirteen hurried forward and offered to carry the couple’s bags. As they negotiated, the conductor disappeared back into to the train and the station master strolled over to Curtis. “Still didn’t find who you’re looking for?”

“Not yet.”

“The train tracks are reaching more and more places every day,” he assured him. “They’ve got to deliver whoever you’re waiting for by and by.”

Curtis rubbed his forehead. “I’m afraid M.J. may never be able to get away.”

 

 

Chapter 9

 

While Ellie recovered from her bruises and her headache faded away, she prayed every night that Papa would somehow find his way home. Mama made hot compresses throughout the day, which eased the soreness some. From his work at the print shop, Jack brought her leaflets and booklets to read to help pass the time.

Her favorite thing was to work on the carving of her father, which had turned into a pose with one leg down and one up in mid-step, as he looked when dancing with her mother. Working on it a little bit every night brought her a measure of comfort, and made her feel closer to him.

When Ellie heard the mournful whistle of the train, she was still too achy to walk to the station, even though just knowing she was not allowed made her want to go all the more. What if Papa somehow made his way to a train platform from wherever he was? He might arrive on any train that rolled into town.

Without finding a truly comfortable position to sleep, Ellie’s nights were restless, and her eyes felt heavy all day.

Curtis Locken visited again, bringing a whole starch cake from a new restaurant that had just opened in town. Linnea insisted he stay and share it with them. After he left, Linnea said, “He is such a nice man.”

Ellie had to agree. He’d never hinted at the awkwardness of their first meeting, he was polite as all get-out to Mama, and he even joked with her brothers, who made short work of the cake. Linnea glanced at the crumbs with a wrinkle between her brows. “Next time he comes, I’ll show him what a really good starch cake is.”

“If he comes back,” Ellie replied.

Linnea gave her daughter a knowing look. “He’ll be back.”

One afternoon, Jesse asked Ellie if she was ready to go on an outing. Ellie was more than ready to get out of the house, even though she still felt some occasional twinges of pain. Linnea must have felt that Ellie needed a change of pace, too, for instead of protesting, she simply waved goodbye with the parting words, “Just watch out for your dress, Ellie, and avoid animal droppings.”

“Mama!”

David stood outside beside his horse, which was hitched to a small wagon. Turning toward Jesse, Ellie asked, “What are we going to do?” She thought of the train station. The train had come and gone at least three times since her accident. Would Jesse take her there? She liked the mystery of the crates loaded on and carried off the train. She wondered about all the people coming and going. Where were they from? Where were they going? Would she ever have the chance to ride the train herself to some new, far-off place?

David interrupted her thoughts. “I’m getting low on apple wood, so instead of using that, I thought I’d look at some standing dead timber up on High Horse Ridge.” He glanced at the western sky. “Jesse said if there’s time, he’ll help me cut some.”

Ellie had spent a lot of time roaming the woods around town, but hadn’t gone up into the mountains more than a handful of times. “Do I need a shawl?”

“That’s a good idea,” Jesse said. “I’ll get it.” Dashing into the house, he soon returned with a tattered thing that Ellie was pretty sure she’d seen her mother toss in the ragbag not too long ago. Jesse threw it over the sides of the wagon that were built up to hold more cargo, although the wagon wasn’t big enough for more than one horse. The shawl landed beside a couple of axes, an old bucket, and a two-man saw. Perhaps that was why Jesse had gotten a ragged one.

David climbed up onto the wagon seat and took the reins while Jesse swung up onto his bay horse with the white blaze. David scooted over, clearing a few inches of wooden seat beside him before looking at Ellie with an invitation in his eyes. “Come sit by me.”

“There’s not enough room,” Ellie said. She gave her brother a beseeching glance and lifted her hand, hoping he’d pull her up onto the horse behind him.

“Go put on something you can ride in,” Jesse grumbled.

Ellie hurried into the house and changed into her split skirt and long-sleeved blouse. When she stepped outside again, she was surprised to see Jesse standing by the wagon. He handed his bay’s reins over to her before jumping in the wagon bed.

“But, I thought we’d both ride,” Ellie said.

“Too hard on the horse to ride so far with two,” Jesse explained.

“But the wagon bed will be hard on you,” Ellie said. “Perhaps I should just stay home.”

“No.” Jesse grinned at her and lifted two feather pillows up high enough for her to see. “Do you need help getting on?” he asked.

“No,” Ellie replied, putting her foot into the stirrup.

Jesse dropped the pillows back down and settled himself into their softness before calling, “Tally ho,” and flicking his hand at David.

After lying around the house for so long, riding out of town beneath trees budding out with fresh green leaves while gentle breezes slipped past her face made Ellie feel like she was beginning a new chapter in her life. She enjoyed riding behind the wagon, watching Jesse make faces as he jounce around while the wagon rolled forward on the dirt track. By the time they arrived, Ellie felt as if she’d been riding for half the day, and was more than ready to get down and walk.

David stopped his wagon on a flat stretch. While Jesse tossed out the tools and Ellie’s shawl, David used surprising skill to get the wagon turned so that it pointed back down the trail to face the way they’d come. Then he arranged for his horse to be able to reach a fair quantity of tender new grass and the water in a narrow stream running alongside the road.

While David saw to the horse, Jesse tossed out the tools and Ellie’s shawl. Ellie dismounted, picked up the shawl, shook it out, and drew it around her shoulders against the cool mountain air.

She followed David and Jesse into a forlorn gathering of dead white pine trees, naked except for a few sparse brown needles. Several leaned against each other like passengers on a rolling ship deck seeking support, their dry scent mixing with the fresh smell of new growth from the green trees surrounding them.

A grove of tall aspens spread out behind the pines rustled their leaves as David walked through the grove, scanning the dead wood. “These’ll make some fine chairs. Tables, too. Let’s get what we can, then I’ll get a crew to come back and cut more.” He glanced over at Jesse. “You free to help tomorrow?”

Ellie was amazed at how David seemed to take charge on this mountainside far from town where there were no real social guidelines. A person did whatever a person needed to do, with no one to make a judgement about proper manners.

“I can help for a bit,” Jesse replied. “I’ve got plans for later that evening.”

David looked interested. “The girl you said earlier?”

“None other.”

Past the rim of dried, brown needles, Ellie spotted a stout aspen branch lying on the ground with a most interesting shape. She made her way through the tree trunks, brown needles crunching underfoot, before stepping inside the aspen grove and picking it up. Sometimes she could see what a piece of wood would become. Other times, she simply started carving until something interesting emerged. As she examined this piece, she could see the possibility of a deer lurking inside the wooden branch. She envisioned the animal lying in the shade, with a fawn at its side. Her fingers itched to free them.

When she looked up, another promising piece of wood presented itself a little way to the right of her. This one was more fierce. It could have a mountain lion in it, crouched and ready to pounce, or it could be the face of a warrior. Heart thudding with anticipation, Ellie tucked that piece in the crook of her arm, too. She picked up another stick of wood that could very well harbor a soaring eagle, its wings spread out in flight, or else the expanse of a lithe, young tree just greening out.

Further on, she found another promising piece. Even though her brother and David were out of sight, the sound of axes on wood came clearly to her ears, so she kept on exploring. Breathing in deeply, she didn’t think she could ever get enough of the breeze whisping through her hair, of the springy forest floor beneath her feet, of the scent of fresh leaves filled with new life, no one judging her for her interest in wood carving.

Ellie allowed the lure of the forest to coax her deeper into the green haven. When she reached a patch of moss with a trickling spring running past, she couldn’t help wondering if this was the source of the same water that David’s horse was enjoying downstream. The thought gave her a comforting sense of connection to her brother. He couldn’t be very far away.

Carefully laying her wooden treasures aside, she knelt and eagerly drank from the cold, fresh water. As she straightened, her head thumped painfully, and sore remnants of her bruises made her decide to rest for a moment. Removing her shoes, she slid her feet into the cold water, leaving them in the running stream until her toes tingled. Pulling her feet out, she laid back on the welcoming new grass, soft and fragrant, to let them dry before putting her stockings and shoes back on.

She woke slowly, with a shiver, and opened her eyes. Branches spread out overhead, dim in the fading light, while the stream rolled past in a cheerful burble.

Ellie sat up with a start. She was alone in the forest. How could she have fallen asleep on a grass bed in the woods when she couldn’t get comfortable enough to sleep on her own bed at home?

Disoriented, she turned, scanning every direction, trying to remember the way she’d come into the spring. The trees around her looked alarmingly alike, dim in the fading light. The sun must be sinking below the horizon.

Where was Jesse?

Ellie pulled on her socks and shoes, glad that she had the laced boots instead of buttons. It still took some doing to get them on and tied.

Gathering up her wood, she pulled the shawl tightly around her and listened for the sound of axes on tree trunks. All she heard were crickets chirping goodnight to the few birds that hadn’t yet settled in to wait out the approaching darkness.

Fear gave her a hard poke in the stomach. Where were Jesse and David? She turned around in a circle, searching for any sign of the right way out. They couldn’t be far. Maybe they were just beyond her sight, stacking wood into the wagon. Surely, they wouldn’t leave her out here alone.

Ellie started forward, but after a couple of hesitant steps, she stopped. Was this the right direction?

She turned around again, looking for anything familiar, but every direction looked very much the same as another. “Jesse?” she called, her voice sounding small beneath the towering trees.

There was no answer.

At this point, she’d be happy to ride on the wagon seat with David. “David?” she called, even louder.

The leaves overhead gave her a sleepy chuckle. Cold chills crept across her back. What should she do? She clutched her armload of wood tighter. The rough bark felt comforting and familiar as it pressed against her skin through the fabric of her dress. The spring chuckled as it hurried on its way. The stream. Of course! In order to come out onto the wagon, she should follow the stream.

With new bravery, she aligned herself, making sure she was following the stream downhill, and strode between two trees so close together, they could have been a giant’s doorway. As soon as she cleared the gap, a dark face loomed above her from behind the tree on her left, the fading light glinting off the shiny surface of one round, black eye staring at her. She was horrified to see that where the other eye should have been, a scarred eyelid drooped down over a shrunken mass of white and black, which brought to mind an apple core left in the sun.

Ellie’s mind screamed, Indian!

 

 

Chapter 10

 

Ellie let out a yell and dropped her wood, which clattered to the ground, giving her foot a resounding thump on the way. Ellie ducked and grabbed the first piece of wood she touched. Chest pounding as painfully as her foot, she straightened and swung the short limb up over her head, ready to hit the savage face as hard as she could.

The single eye widened, showing white all around the black iris. “Lord have mercy!” the Indian yelled before dropping to the ground, his lanky arms folded up over his head.

“Now, hold on there,“ said a voice smooth as warm molasses.

Ellie froze, her eyes darting up from the cowering Indian to Curtis Locken standing with his palms out toward her. “There’s no call to beat on M.J. when he’s just coming to your rescue.”

“My rescue?“

“You were calling out like you needed help, so we came to assist you.”

Ellie lowered the stick. “What are you doing out here?“ She hated the tremor in her voice.

“I could ask the same of you, a young woman unaccompanied.” His eyebrow quirked up. “This could be viewed as a positively indecent situation. “

Ellie wasn’t sure what to say. Curtis had been as polite as a preacher at her house, but now he was making allusions to her character.

Ellie raised her stick again. “Don’t you try anything.“ Mr. Curtis Locken was a fine looking man, and he had saved her life. Perhaps he sought after any unaccompanied girl with a pretty face who happened to be away from the safety of a town. Just now he’d gone straight to talk of indecency upon finding her alone. And did she really tear her sleeve so thoroughly? Her thoughts of the fall on the train tracks were unclear. Could Curtis Locken have had a hand in taking advantage of a small opening in her dress seam to make it larger? Perhaps he wasn’t the man she imagined him to be.

Ellie stood firm as the one-eyed man in the buckskin shirt slowly got to his feet. Thin as an aspen, M.J. stood a little taller than Curtis.

“You’d better take care,” Ellie warned. “My brother and his friend are out here. And they are armed.” They had axes and a saw, but if Curtis and M.J. thought they carried guns, so much the better. “You are no match for the two of them.”

“You needn’t worry, Miss Ransom,” Curtis said in the most comforting tone Ellie had ever heard. She wanted to believe him. His gentle accent alone implied security. But wolves could wag their tails and cavort like friendly dogs, yet beneath their warm fur beat a wild heart. David had changed his demeanor in the wilderness. Had Mr. Curtis Locken changed out here away from civilization, too?

“I was merely having some fun as I’ve heard your brothers do when speaking with you. You are as safe with me and M.J. as if you were within the walls of your own home.“

Without thinking, Ellie muttered, “Does that include safety against sewing?”

“Well, ma’am,” M.J. said with a startlingly white smile. “If you have a problem wit’ sewing, I’m a good hand at it.”

Ellie took a sudden step back.

“By the way, my name is Moses, ma’am.” He cast a disparaging glance at Curtis. “Not M.J.”

“He is right,” Curtis said. “Moses grew up with me in Georgia, where he turned a willing hand toward any chore.”

“Not much choice, was there?” Moses said.

Curtis grinned and clapped a hand on Moses’s shoulder. “We got on well, spending many pleasant days fishing, walking fences, swimming, and working around the plantation together. I took to calling him M.J. the day we got into the mint juleps and he became rather tipsy.”

“That was not a good day,” Moses said solemnly. “Bes’ not remembered. I’m sworn off liquor, so call me Moses now.”

Curtis nodded. “As you wish.” He turned back to Ellie. “Then the war called me into service.” Curtis paused, making Ellie suspect that was leaving something out of his story. Before she could question him, he continued, “Then Moses disappeared, heading west on his own. When I found him again at last, he consented to meet me here in Rambling.”

“Oh,” Ellie said, realization suddenly dawning. “Is that who… at the station…when you waited for every train?”

“Yes, he is the one I waited for. Turns out he’d gotten himself deep in Indian territory, where he’d made himself popular with the red men.”

Moses turned to Curtis, “‘Excuse me, you’re gettin’ it wrong.” Moses’s mellow voice was nearly as cultured as Curtis’s. Moses glanced at Ellie, then dropped his gaze. “To put it plain, ma’am, it was the Indian women.” He brushed the leather sleeve of his shirt. “They lost mos’ of their men in battles with whites, so Indian women found new husbands by buying slaves.” Moses grinned and gave his chest a thump.

Ellie shifted, uncomfortable. “You’re a slave?”

“Used to be,” Curtis said.

“Used to be a white man’s slave,” Moses corrected him. “Now I’m the property of Sunning Sparrow.”

“He managed to get away,” Curtis said, “and now he’s a free man.”

Without another word, Moses stepped forward, bent, and picked up Ellie’s dropped wood.

“You don’t have to,” Ellie protested, reaching for the bundle.

“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but take a look at me, and take a look at you,” Moses said, glancing at his buckskins, then skimming Ellie’s slender arm. “Which one of us is bes’ made for carrying these matchsticks?”

“But they’re not…” Ellie began, then realized that Moses was just having some fun.

Moses’ expression suddenly grew serious as he scanned Ellie’s face. “You ever been to Georgia, ma’am?”

Thinking it a strange question, she answered, “No. Why?”

Moses didn’t answer, but Curtis cocked his head to one side and studied Ellie as if she were a rare and valuable painting. She tried not to squirm under his penetrating gaze. “She look familiar to you, M.J?”

Moses gave him a stern look.

“Sorry. Moses. Old habits die hard.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hm. Perhaps you saw her somewhere after you left home.”

With doubt plain in his eye, Moses replied, “That mus’ be it.”

“I’ve only ever lived here,” Ellie said.

“Is this your first time in Rambling?” Curtis asked.

“Firs’ time,” Moses admitted.

“Hm,” Curtis said. “That is strange, but I’ve no doubt it’ll come to you, by and by.”

Ellie stared at Moses with apprehension. Curtis hadn’t told her what they were doing out here, with night falling fast. Moses wasn’t one of those gypsies who told fortunes and found things growing out in the woods or graveyards by moonlight to use in casting spells, was he?

Curtis broke into her uneasy thoughts. “Now let’s go see if we can find your brother.” After a second’s hesitation, he added, “And David.”

Curtis led the way out of the trees with sure steps, seeming to know exactly where he was going. Ellie followed, feeling safe again. Although she could just make Curtis out in the darkness under the trees, she liked the way his broad, strong shoulders moved beneath his shirt.

When they broke from the woods, two horses looked up from where they waited in the light of a three quarter moon. Bronzed clouds crowded the western horizon. Curtis greeted the larger brown horse by rubbing his hand over its nose and up into its forelock. He moved close to the horse’s head and murmured something to the animal, that bobbed its brown head up and down as if agreeing.

Ellie found herself wondering what it would be like if Curtis spoke to her like that. What if he brought his face just as close to hers while whispering endearments in that voice of his that could melt a whole horse trough full of butter in January?

When he turned and caught Ellie staring at him, she quickly glanced away, her face growing so warm that she turned toward the sunset, hoping any color in her cheeks could be attributed to the last blush of the sunlight staining the clouds.

Moses moved past Ellie and took the reins of a big black horse. “Ma’am, your chariot awaits.”

Ellie was confused. Was he planning to walk while she rode? That didn’t seem right. She tugged at her ragged shawl, wondering what to do. She glanced at Curtis just as he mounted his horse. She’d seen men get on their horses plenty of times before, but the sight of Curtis’s long leg stepping into his horse’s stirrup before the other muscular leg swung out and over the saddle made her knees go weak.

As he settled into the saddle, his horse took a step back, adjusting to his weight. Sitting up there so high, Curtis’s square chin was highlighted by the last bits of russet light slipping from the western sky, making it appear as strong as steel. He was so appealing that she couldn’t stop staring. How would it feel to ride behind him with her arms around his waist, hands clasped over his hard, flat stomach?

As if he knew what she was thinking, Curtis cast a glance at Ellie before giving her a slow smile. Ellie’s heart beat so fast, she had a hard time drawing her next breath. He couldn’t read her thoughts, could he? Was it possible he had enough experience with women that he was certain of his appeal, knowing that even the sight of him could create whirlwinds in their hearts?

“Wh… what… what should I do?” Ellie demanded, uncertainty making her voice sharp.

“Behind me,” Curtis said, stretching a long, muscular arm down toward Ellie.

“But…” Moses said.

“No, Moses, you’re not going to walk Miss Ellie on your horse. It would take too much time.”

“Yassuh.”

“None of that,” Curtis scolded, “or else I’ll call you M.J. for the rest of your life.” Moses laughed out loud. Then, with the grace of a panther, he managed to get on his horse without dropping a single piece of Ellie’s wood. His eye glinted in the moonlight before he turned and started walking his horse down through the trees.

What had happened to his eye? Ellie hated to imagine.

“What about my brother and my… David?” Ellie could have fainted for the way her words came out. It sounded like she was claiming David as her beau, but that wasn’t the case at all.

“Well, we’ll just go and see if we can round them up,” Curtis said. “Come on, now. If you’d rather I help you up onto the horse first…”

She stopped him by stepping forward with a hasty, “No, no.” The thought of Curtis’s hands on her waist as he hoisted her up onto his saddle made Ellie’s stomach flip over. She couldn’t imagine having him so close to the parts of her that should be shielded from men’s eyes at all times. Reaching out her hand, she tried to explain her hasty reaction with, “No need to get all unsettled just for me.”

His warm fingers gripped her wrist, and hers wrapped around his muscular arm in return. He pulled his foot out of the stirrup so that she could put her boot into it, then his biceps bulged as he hoisted her up onto the horse behind his saddle. His pull was so firm that she felt like she was flying through the air, about to fall backwards off the other side. As she grabbed him around the waist to keep from falling off, he released her hand, and she found herself gripping him as tightly as she might a greased pig at the Independence Day festivities.

Mortified at such sudden, close contact, she pushed herself back a little, struggling to keep her balance. What could Curtis possibly be thinking of her now?

With a heart-stopping grin, Curtis called, “Hold on,” over his shoulder. Then, sitting easy in the saddle, he urged his horse into a gentle trot, heading off after Moses in a strange landscape that was part moonlight bright enough to cast shadows, and part golden sunset fading in the west.

With the sudden increase in speed, Ellie pulled her attention away from the hair curling from beneath Curtis’s hat and held onto him more tightly so she wouldn’t bounce off. Was this really happening? Was she really riding with a man who’d saved her life not once, but twice? “Have you always ridden horses?” she asked.

“No, not always.”

“You do it so well.” Did that sound insincere? In spite of the unfortunate circumstances of their first meeting, she realized with surprise that she wanted him to think well of her.

Curtis reined his horse onto the trail and turned back toward town. “Where are you going?” Ellie asked.

“I’ll search this direction, and Moses will go that way,” Curtis said. “If we don’t meet up with your brother on the trail, then we’ll fan out into the trees. Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” Curtis’s calm assurance made Ellie feel as if everything really would turn out right. Content to leave matters in his hands for now, she let herself notice the pleasant vibration of his chest beneath her hands whenever he spoke.

They didn’t find Jesse on the road. They kept calling as they made their slow way into the trees, dodging branches, and found him there leading his bay, his voice so hoarse that they couldn’t hear his answering cries.

When he caught sight of Ellie, he hurried to Curtis’s horse and put his arms up. “Are you alright?” he asked as Ellie slid down into his embrace. It was hard to tell in the moonlight, but it seemed as if the last bit of fading light on the western edge of the darkening sky managed to make Jesse’s eyes appear to be rimmed with redness.

“Yes, I’m alright.”

“Where have you been?” Jesse demanded, pulling away to stare at his sister. “Why did you leave?”

“I”m sorry, I fell asleep.”

“We called and called.”

“I didn’t hear you. I really didn’t.” Ellie looked around. “Where’s David?”

“I sent him back to town to gather up a posse to come look for you. We thought you might have been taken.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause all this trouble.”

Jesse pulled her in for another hug. Then he looked up at Curtis. “Thank you for finding my sister. My name’s Jesse.”

“My pleasure,” Curtis replied. “I am Curtis Locken. And this is Moses.”

Moses and Jesse nodded at one another.

“If you’ve got the time, I’d be pleased for you to come to the house to answer all our mother’s questions,” Jesse said.

“We will do so,” Curtis said.

Jesse tugged Ellie’s hand as he walked toward his horse. “You’re riding with me. We’ve got to get home before David turns the posse loose on you.”

Although she was glad to be safe, Ellie couldn’t help but notice that riding behind her brother was not the same as holding onto Curtis. With Jesse leading the way, it was disappointing that she couldn’t watch Curtis unless she twisted around on the bay’s rump. He was already carrying two people, although it was downhill, which was hopefully easier for him. Besides, she had no reason to turn and treat herself to the sight of Curtis riding his brown horse. Why did she want to look at him so badly anyway? Feeling unsettled, she gazed out at the landscape, which looked so different in moonlight. It was as if she was riding through a stranger world than the one she’d traveled earlier, almost like a dream. Jesse said that her seeing Papa in her room was just a dream, but this seemed as real to her as that had.

They were riding down the first street in town, which offered enough room that Curtis pulled his horse up to ride alongside them, when Curtis suddenly asked, “Do you hear something?”

Ellie tilted her head, listening

“It sounds like David’s wagon,” Jesse said. “I didn’t think he’d get everyone gathered up so fast.”

Ellie sat up straighter, trying to see around Jesse. A wagon approached them, but it wasn’t David’s. The driver sat near the center of the seat while a slender figure beside him clutched the side of the wagon seat, leaning over so far that Ellie feared whoever it was might bounce out. When they drew close enough, Ellie recognized Polly nearly falling onto the road while stern-faced Mr. Demar drove the horse.

“Polly!” Ellie called.

As Polly glanced up, moonlight shone on her face, revealing a deep shadow beneath one of her eyes. She didn’t smile, but a brief look of hopefulness crossed her face.

Mr. Demar flicked his whip at the passing riders, as if to say, “Move on.”

Curtis slowed and turned anyway, and Moses matched his pace, turning his black horse to walk along the other side of the wagon.

Jesse stopped and let his bay stand sideways as Curtis called over the rumble of wheels, “Is everything alright, sir?”

“And why wouldn’t it be?” Mr. Demar yelled back.

Ellie couldn’t take her eyes off Polly’s face. Was that dirt beneath her eye? Or was it a bruise? It was hard to tell.

“Are you alright, ma’am?” Curtis asked.

Polly didn’t answer right away, just stared up at him with frightened eyes.

“Answer when you’re asked a question!” Mr. Demar shouted.

“Yes, sir,” Polly said, whether to Mr. Demar or Curtis was unclear.

“On your way,” Mr. Demar called. “You’re crowding the road.”

Jessse moved his horse closer to the departing wagon. “What’s that under your eye?” he called in his worn-out voice.

“She’s clumsy,” Mr. Demar shouted. “And she doesn’t know how to wash properly, so she’s dirty, like an animal. Now get on with you!” He whipped his horse and rumbled faster down the street.

Jesse stared after them. “Something’s not right there.”

“I’ll go over and check on her tomorrow,” Ellie said.

Jesse’s gaze darkened. “Not without me, you won’t.” Then he turned and urged his horse onward. In a few minutes, their house came into view. Ellie was surprised to see it glowing with lights, as if it were a palace. This was not like Mama at all, who encouraged everyone to share just one lantern after dark.

Linnea rushed through the doorway, her hand covering her mouth as she hurried toward her daughter. Behind her, John Haun stopped on the top step and folded his arms.

Ellie suddenly started to cry.

Curtis slid off his horse and helped Ellie down just as her mother reached her. “Are you hurt?” Linnea asked as she wrapped an arm around Ellie’s waist and led her toward the house.

Curtis watched Ellie go, still feeling the welcome pressure of her warm arms gripping his waist. When she’d pulled back at the beginning of the ride, he found that making his horse move faster had proved a good strategy to get her to hold tighter again. When the ride finally ended and he was obliged to turn her over to her brother, he was disappointed.

David appeared with a lantern in his hand. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing a suspicious finger at Moses. “You in league with them Indians?”

“No,” Curtis said, “that’s my friend, M.J., I mean, Moses.”

Moses grinned and waved a stick of wood. “He gets confused sometimes, ever since he drank too much mint julep.”

David scowled at him. “What’s mint julep, anyways?”

“It is an alcohol drink,” Moses said. “Very good to taste, very bad for heads.”

“Where did you find her?” David demanded. “Never mind, I’ll go ask her myself.” He turned and trotted toward the house.

Jesse turned toward Curtis. “What were you doing out there anyway?

“Too many people were staring at Moses in the hotel dining room, so we took a ride after supper. Saw some shed antlers by the way that could work for making things to export, like chair legs or lamps. We decided to go looking for more before the light was gone and found Ellie.”

Jack appeared from behind the house and moved toward them, casting uncertain glances over his shoulder. “Why is Ellie crying?”

“If you’d been here, you would know,” Jesse said with an edge in his raspy voice. “Where were you?”

Jack twisted up a corner of his mouth. “Why are you talking like that?”

“Because I’ve been calling for Ellie for so long,” Jesse said.

“Looks like you found her.”

“Stop changing the subject,” Jesse demanded, sounding like a querulous old man.

Jack stood straighter so that he towered over his brother. “On Mama’s business.”

“What kind of business?”

Jack replied patiently, “That’s not important. If Ellie’s found, why is she crying?”

“It’s good for women to cry at times,” Curtis said.

“Not if I have to listen to it,” Jesse grumbled.

“I expect she’s just letting out her fear of being lost,” Curtis said.

“Mama said she’d have biscuits ready for when I got back,” Jack said. “Why don’t we all have some?” He glanced at Moses. “You, too. The biscuits are likely cold.”

“Cold biscuits fill a belly every bit as good as hot ones,” Moses replied.

Curtis didn’t care about the food, but he definitely wanted to see Ellie again. “Much obliged.” Curtis said.

Jack and Jesse led the way, Jesse walking stiffly, casting suspicious glances at his brother as Curtis and Moses followed. “You saw her again, didn’t you?” Jesse finally asked.

Jack shrugged. “Mama needed measurements.”

Jesse stopped so suddenly that Curtis nearly ran into him. “You measured her?”

“No,” Jack said firmly. “I brought her here so Mama could.”

Jesse pushed his face close to Jack’s. “You rode with her both ways?”

Jack scoffed. “What else was I to do, have her walk home?”

“I thought we had a talk about this,” Jesse yelled. “You haven’t a claim on her.”

Tensing, Jack replied, “That’s what you think.”

“Excuse me,” Curtis said. “I believe the young lady in question should have a say in the matter.”

Jesse and Jack both turned to stare at him. Jesse’s eyes were narrowed, while Jack’s were wide with surprise, as if he’d forgotten that Curtis was there.

“He’s right,” Moses said, blinking his eye. “Women got minds of their own.”

 

 

Chapter 11

 

When they went into the house, the first thing Curtis heard was Ellie saying, “…not hurt.”

At first sight of her alone in the woods with night falling, all he wanted to do was protect her. That disarming streak of white in her hair, like a beacon, made her unlike any other girl he’d ever seen. Most women he’d known came across as unwilling or unable to defend themselves, but the spunky stance she’d taken to protect herself from what she supposed was a marauding Indian only served to insert her more deeply in his heart. And after they’d passed the wagon, he heard her say she’d check on the frightened girl.

After seeing her strength in the woods, he was equally drawn by her vulnerability, liking the way she fit into her mother’s arms, even though her mother was smaller. Curtis would be happy to trade places with Linnea just now.

“Mama, I invited them in for a bite,” Jack explained.

Linnea scarcely glanced up. “Help yourselves.”

Ellie turned her head to stare at Jesse through thick, wet lashes. “You’re not angry, are you?”

Jesse spread his hands.“I’m glad you’re safe, Ellie.”

“What happened?” Jack asked.

“I fell asleep when we went for wood and didn’t hear Jesse calling,” Ellie explained. “When I woke up, Curtis, I mean Mr. Locken, found me, and then he and Moses found Jesse.”

“So next time, you’d better just stay home where you belong,” Jesse said.

Although Curtis understood that Jesse’s harshness came from his intense fear for his sister’s safety, the stricken look on Ellie’s face made him take a step toward her. He didn’t know exactly what he’d say, but he he wanted to offer words that would help soften the sting.

Before Curtis could speak, David rose up from the shadows at the end of the sofa where he’d been crouched like a faithful dog. “It’s my fault,” he said. “I should have gotten my wood on a different day.” His moist eyes rested on Ellie. “I should have left earlier. I should have kept track of you.“ He glanced down, then back up. “I’m sorry I didn’t watch over you, Eleanor.”

Ellie sat up straight and dashed a hand at her eyes. “It wasn’t your fault. I’m the one who went walking off to find carving sticks.”

“And where did it get you?” Mama asked, folding her hands on her lap. “Now maybe you’ll give up that foolish practice.”

Curtis didn’t miss Ellie’s eyes widening at the bite in her mother’s tone.

“So do you want these in the wood box?” Moses asked, giving the wood in his arms a little bounce.

“No!’ Curtis watched Ellie stand and take the sticks from Moses before carrying them to her room. Seeing pain following pain on Ellie’s beautiful face stirred him deep inside. He determined to do anything in his power to soothe her heartache and replace it with joy. If that meant chopping down a whole forest of wood for her to carve, then so be it.

“Well, Linnea, your evening has turned out well with the return of your daughter,” John Haun said. “I’d best head home now.”

Linnea stood. “Thank you for your willingness to help. Don’t you want to stay for a bite?”

John glanced at Ellie walking out of her room before pulling the door shut behind her. He shook his head. “No, thank you. I’m surely glad for the safe return of your girl.” He nodded vaguely around the room before stepping outside and closing the door behind him.

“Hello, who’s this?” Moses asked, pointing to a picture on the mantle. A dark haired man stared out from the frame, his mouth a little bit blurred, unlike the woman at his side who had her mouth in the traditional straight line. A relaxed face allowed the photo plates exposed to light long enough to burn the image in before anyone in the frame moved. If they so much as smiled, the movement would blur the image.

Silence followed Moses’s question. Curtis looked around at the solemn gathering, guessing who it was before Jesse answered, “That’s our father.” Jesse glanced at his mother. Linnea dipped her head, studying her fingers with intensity. “His wagon train was attacked by Indians. The wagons were looted and burned.” He stopped, swallowed, and finished with, “Our father’s body was not with the ones beside the wagons.”

“Oh, he’s not los’,” Moses mumbled. “Nor his mouth organ.”

Everyone in the room sat bolt upright as if they’d been poked with a hot stick. Jesse was the first to speak. “What did you say?”

Moses looked startled, his eye roving over the white faces staring at him. Ellie stood, her intense gaze fixed on him as if he were an angel fallen from heaven, and she was ready to hear his message.

Moses’s gaze finally settled on Curtis. “I…I’m not certain.” Then his demeanor changed. He hunched his shoulders and put a silly grin on his face. “Don’ pay me no nevah min’,” he said in a thin, high voice as he turned toward the door.

When Curtis saw Moses adopt his slave persona over the intelligent friend that he knew so well, Curtis decided not to pursue the matter in the present company. “He doesn’t always make sense,” Curtis explained. “We’d best be getting along. Come on, Moses.”

“No, wait.” Linnea moved to stand in front of Moses as if seeing him for the first time. “I don’t know what happened to you, but I treat guests right, and I’ve got to treat your poor eye.”

Moses ducked his head. “Ma’am, it happened long ago.”

“Well, it can’t feel good to have it exposed like that. I’ve got some pine sap ointment to treat it.”

Moses glanced at Curtis.

“Begging your pardon, Mrs. Ransom, but it’s healed up as much as it’s able,” Curtis said.

“Well, you only say that because it hasn’t been treated with my ointment yet,” Linnea said. Then she turned to Moses. “And you can’t say that an eye patch wouldn’t make you feel more comfortable out in society.”

“You’re more than kind,” Moses said with a smile.

Linnea made Moses sit at the table and ordered Jack to bring the plate of biscuits and some jam. Moses stared at the plate.

“Save one for him,” Linnea commanded, wetting a cloth and dabbing gently around Moses’s eye while everyone seated themselves at the table. Moses bore Linnea’s doctoring while they everyone else passed around cups and plates and biscuits.

“You mus’ be a good cook, ma’am,” Moses said, his fingers twitching on the table top as if eager to grab a biscuit. “In my time with the Indians, I found they sure do favor white man’s bread, and yours look particular’ good.”

“Why, thank you,” Linnea said, a smile lifting the lines of concentration from her brow.

Curtis watched Ellie, gratified to see her lean away from David when he lowered himself onto the chair beside her. It appeared that the fondness between them only ran in one direction. He couldn’t blame David for his interest in this fascinating young woman. He didn’t intend to let David continue his futile attempts at courting, lest by familiarity, Ellie might eventually be won over.

Satisfied at last, Linnea pulled out a basket of small fabric pieces stored in neat little rolls. “Which one?” she asked, holding the basket out toward Moses.

Moses glanced at Curtis, the ointment that Linnea had dabbed on his mangled eye glinting in the glow of light.

Curtis gave him a mischievous grin. “I think he’d look mighty dandy in that checkered blue one.”

Picking up the bantering spirit, Jesse countered with, “I don’t know. I think the green flower print might favor him.”

“Black would suit,” Ellie suggested in all sincerity. “It matches his hair.”

“This is for Moses to decide for himself,” Linnea said, moving the basket an inch closer to him. “Go ahead, choose one.”

Moses looked around at the expectant faces before reaching down and tugging out a piece of pink that matched Ellie’s ruined dress. “This reminds me of sunrise,” he said in his normal voice.

Without pause, Linnea unrolled the fabric. After cutting off an end to fold into a soft bandage that she pressed against his eye, she tied a strip neatly around his head to hold it in place. “You have good taste, Mr. Moses,” Linnea said, stepping back to admire her handiwork. “Now, keep it clean. It’s clear you’ve had enough trouble as it is.”

“Thank you most’ kindly, ma’am.”

Curtis noticed Ellie staring at Moses, her lips twitching as if trying to suppress a smile.

Linnea brightened. “How about if I send you with two? One to wear and one to wash.”

“You choose,” Moses said. “Muslin’s soft, but the linsey woolsey fabric might be harsh toward an eye.”

“You know your cloth,” Linnea said with surprise.

Moses closed his mouth and gave her a single nod. “I’d be obliged for a biscuit, ma’am.” He got two.

Linnea released Moses with an additional red checked eyepatch, the remaining two biscuits, and strict instructions to return the next day to have his eye checked.

Perhaps helping others was a way that she made up for not being able to help her husband. Seeing no point in explaining again that Moses’s eyes was as healed as it would ever be, Curtis said, “Thank you for your hospitality, ma’am,” then followed Moses to the door.

“Thank you for returning my daughter.”

Curtis paused in the doorway to look back at Ellie. He didn’t need to catch her eye. She was already gazing at him in the soft lamplight as if trying to read his mind. The more time he spent in her company, the better he liked her. She bantered with her brothers, was helpful to her mother, except in the realm of sewing, and was clearly softhearted and loyal. He’d detected none of the characteristics that had rendered the once beautiful Annabelle into a heartless fury. Memorizing Ellie’s winsome expression to carry with him on the ride home, Curtis decided that even if she were homely to look upon, he would still be drawn to her and wish to spend any time he could in her company.

  • * *

Ellie did not want to blink as Curtis’s gaze caught her in a delightful web of emotions. He didn’t seem to think less of her for falling onto the train track, and she no longer felt embarrassed over her inadvertent state of undress. He was kind to his horse and treated Moses like a regular man. He was polite to Mama, and held his own with her brothers.

“Are you okay?”

Ellie started, breaking eye contact with Curtis just as he slowly pulled the door closed behind him. David looked at her with anxious eyes.

“Tired,” Ellie replied, realizing that she suddenly felt as if her limbs were made of wood.

“Time to go,” Linnea said, shooing her hands at David. He walked to the door and, after a single backward glance, let himself out.

Linnea turned to Ellie. “You get yourself off to bed.”

Ellie stumbled to her room, never before so glad for the sight of her pillow. But when she pulled back the covers, she realized her curtain was open. Was it worth the effort to get up and close it? She couldn’t see anything out in the darkness beyond the glass. Could anyone out there see her?

Uncomfortable at the thought, she made her way to the window to pull the curtains closed. The moon shone out over the landscape, making it look as if it belonged in a dream. Where was Papa now? She reached behind the fan on her trunk and picked up the carving of the tall man with one foot on the ground, one foot raised, as if dancing. She needed to finish this. Perhaps once it was done, somehow Papa would come home. Ellie set the carving back down and clasped her hands together on the windowsill. She wanted him here, at home, where he belonged. “Please,” she prayed. “Please help Papa find his way back.”

A movement in the eerie black and white landscape caught her eye. It came from by the tree at the side of the yard. Heart jumping like a jackrabbit, Ellie focused her gaze on the spot, trying to make out what she’d seen. Was it a wild animal? After losing a few chickens to predators, Papa had directed Jack and Jesse to reinforce the wire around the chicken run. Once they got going on it, the brothers tried to outdo each other until Papa finally told them it was good enough. As a result, no other chicken pen in the west was as predator-proof as the Ransom’s.

Ellie stared at the tree until her vision started to blur. Perhaps whatever it was had gone. But how could it have? Perhaps it had crept away in the shadows. She took hold of her curtains, one in each hand, ready to pull them closed, when the thing moved again. It was hard to separate it from the shadow beneath the tree, but it looked big, bigger than a skunk or fox. Ellie stared in horrified fascination as it moved again. This time it moved like a man.

Gasping in fright, Ellie yanked her curtains closed and backed up until she hit her bed. Losing her balance, she fell onto the mattress, her heart beating so wildly that she only had enough strength to pull her quilt around her in a cocoon. She huddled in the center of her bed, her ears tuned to any sound that might indicate the sinister approach of the shadowed figure. Had there really been a man out there? She wasn’t sure. Should she tell Mama and her brothers? They wouldn’t believe her.

What should she do? As she curled in on herself under the warm protection of her quilt, sleep eventually dragged her from her silent vigil.

 

 

Chapter 12

 

Ellie woke up to the ominous sound of thunder rolling across the sky, a sound that made her chest hurt. Something felt wrong.

She sat up, confused. The gray light seeping around her closed curtain made it look like dusk, but surely it was morning. Reluctantly, Ellie got up and made her way across the room to take a look at the stormy sky. As soon as she caught sight of the tree through her rain-streaked window, she remembered. Someone might have been out there last night. Genuine fear coursed through her again at the memory of the shadow that appeared to stare at her window. But was there really someone there? Or was it something innocent made sinister through her tired eyes?

Hurrying out to the kitchen, she found Jack sitting at the table over a bowl of mush. There was no milk, but the molasses jar was half full. Without turning from the stove, her mother said, “Here’s your breakfast, Ellie,” as she ladled some mush into another bowl.

Jesse burst into the room, snapping his suspenders. “Ah, what a fine day,” he chortled.

His cheer deepened Ellie’s anxiety. “Someone may have been outside my room last night,” she blurted.

Jesse stood stock still for a moment. “Why didn’t you tell me last night?”

“I wasn’t sure. Besides, I didn’t think you’d believe me.”

“Where did you see him?” Jesse demanded.

“Under the tree,” Ellie said. “Isn’t that the way Indians sneak up on people? In the shadows?”

“You think it was an Indian?” Jesse asked, hurrying across the floor. He yanked open the door and disappeared out into a drizzle of rain. Jack abandoned his breakfast and followed his brother, grabbing a hat from a peg by the door and clapping it on his head before going out. In a few long minutes, they were back, Jesse shaking water drops out of his hair.

“What did you find?” Linnea asked anxiously.

“Nothing,” Jack said, hanging up his hat and sitting back down at the table. “The rain must have washed away the tracks.”

“If there were any,” Jesse said.

Ellie turned away from him.

“It may have been a dream,” Jesse said.

“I wasn’t asleep.”

“Last night we may have been able to prove what you saw, but this morning, there is no evidence.”

“I said I wasn’t sure it was a man,” Ellie said.

“I’m not saying that you didn’t see someone,” Jack said. “I’m just saying that it’s not proven. We can ask around and see if anyone else saw anything. David left about that same time. I can go talk to him.” He sat down and patted a spot on the table next to him. “You should come with me after breakfast, Ellie. He said he wanted to show you something.”

“But it’s raining,” Linnea said

“I’ll dry out,” Jesse announced cheerfully. “I always do. Ellie can bring her parasol.”

“I’d like to stop and visit Polly on our way back,” Ellie said.

Jesse nodded and dug his spoon into his mush. In the company of her family, Ellie’s fears from the night before faded. As she ate, she turned her thoughts to wondering which tools David would have from the new shipment. She was glad Jesse offered to go with her, because she wasn’t about to go alone.

By the time breakfast was over, the wrung out clouds hung like a threat overhead. Jesse didn’t want to bother hitching up the wagon, so Ellie changed into her riding skirt and got on his horse behind him. Remembering her ride the night before, she couldn’t help wondering when she’d see Curtis again.

As they clip clopped across a plank bridge that spanned the river, Ellie was alarmed to see that the water was running high from the night’s rain, rumbling by just beneath the old wooden boards, slapping at the bottom with undulating waves. Jesse didn’t pause until his horse stumbled on a loose plank, which gave way with a loud crack and disappeared into the tumbling brown water.

“Easy girl,” Jesse said, patting his horse’s neck as she danced across the bridge toward the far side. With no railings to keep the horse from stepping off the edge, Ellie tensed and gripped Jesse so hard that he gasped. Finally getting her footing, the horse trotted on, ears twitching nervously until she gained the far bank.

As Jesse urged the horse toward David’s house, which was in view of the river, he said, “Someone ought to repair that bridge. It’s falling apart.”

He pulled to a stop in front a two-story house with a porch that wrapped around two sides. Rows and rows of apple and plum trees just starting to blossom spread out behind the house. The scent was sweet with the promise of a bountiful fall harvest. With intense pink flowering currant bushes and cool white blooms on the elderberry bushes growing wild by the orchard, it was one of the prettiest sights Ellie had ever seen.

Jesse led the horse to the barn while Ellie made her way to the shelter of the Unger’s porch. David was at her side in a moment, a delighted smile on his broad face. “What are you doing here?” he asked. Then his brow crumpled in confusion. “How did you get here?”

“Jesse.”

“Oh.” David’s smile returned.

Jesse strode up to the house from the barn. “Hope you don’t mind me putting my horse in there.”

“Course not,” David said.

“Hey, David, when you left last night, did you happen to notice anyone unusual outside our place?”

“No.” David shook his head, his eyes troubled. “What happened?”

Jesse’s voice took on a teasing tone. “Ellie thought she saw an Indian.”

David’s eyes went wide. “An Indian? At your house?”

“Out back,” Ellie said. “But Jesse doesn’t think so.”

Jesse held out his palms. “All I said was there’s no proof.”

“I don’t like it,” David said, his face growing as stormy as the sky.

“Well, we’ll have to deal with it later,” Jesse said. “Wasn’t there something you wanted to show Ellie?”

“Oh, yes, the woodworking tools.” David’s brow cleared. “They’re in my workshed.”

As David led the way toward an outbuilding, Jesse asked, “Wouldn’t it be easier to harvest orchards like your father instead of fooling around so much with that woodworking stuff?”

“I do help with the orchard, but the fruit’s not ready yet,” David said. “Besides, trees are made of wood, so building furniture with wood is kind of like working in an orchard.”

“Your mother makes the best apple butter I ever tasted.” Jesse glanced toward the house as if he could see the kitchen through the walls, with rows and rows of jelly jars lined up, full of fragrant preserves, the apple butter in front.

“I can make apple butter, too,” David announced, then led them into the shed. They maneuvered between piles of wood slats, buckets of nails, and baskets and crates stacked along one wall.

“You ought to use these to fix that bridge,” Jesse said, pointing at the slats.

“Those are for building fruit crates,” David said. “Papa says we need some thicker slats to fix the bridge.”

“Well, you’d better get on with it. One of the boards knocked loose under my horse on the way over.”

“Did it get hurt?” David asked.

“Not that I could see.”

David nodded solemnly. “I’ll let Papa know.” He took another step, then yelled, “Watch out!” as a little ball of gray fur tumbled past Ellie’s skirts. Startled, she let out a little squeal, which caused an orange kitten chasing after its gray brother to jump and spin toward her, it’s little back arched in a comical curve. Then it darted away again.

“My cat had seven kittens,” David explained, keeping his eyes on the floor as he moved carefully past hammers and saws hanging on the wall. “When she went missin’, I had to feed them all milk until their eyes opened and they could see good enough to drink from a plate.”

“And they all survived?” Ellie asked.

“Yep.” David bent and held his hand out. “I like helpin’ things that needs help.” A black and white kitten trotted over to him, brushing its tiny head against his broad fingers. More kittens came tumbling out of their hiding places, mewing as they slid around David’s feet, their tails curving up into question marks. “Did you go and drink all your milk again?” David asked the little balls of fur. “You’re old enough to catch yourselves a mouse, you know. You’re bigger’n them now. You can all gang up on one, even.”

David straightened. “I’ll get you more milk. Just wait a minute.”

When they reached the long workbench on the other side of the shed, Ellie studied a nearly finished wooden chair sitting on top of it. Her gaze was drawn to the straight, smooth legs. If only she could have had a chance to carve them before they were planed down so narrow that there wasn’t much left to work with. She pictured a wooden squirrel climbing up one of them, with the cheerfully round leaves of an Aspen tree carved into another. She imagined a duck taking off from the water to fly up along a third leg, and a fox circling the fourth.

David dug through a new wooden crate, pulling out a slender keyhole saw, a curl scraper, a couple of adjustable wood clamps, and a set of delicate gouges with different sized steel tips, from straight to curved to V shaped. Ellie glanced at the keyhole saw, imagining herself cutting a small hole in a wooden plank, just big enough for a finger to fit. She could turn it into a mountain lion’s mouth or an owl’s nest, just to name a few possibilities. They were pleasant thoughts.

Touching the curl scraper, she imagined what kind of designs she could create with it. She’d like to try it. Her eyes slid over the utilitarian wood clamps and onto the gouges. She couldn’t seem to keep herself from reaching out to touch the octagonal hardwood handle of the nearest one.

“Go ahead. Try it,” David encouraged.

Ellie picked up a gouge, delighted to feel the fine balance in her hand. She put it back down and picked up another, running a finger beneath the cool, hard blade. The shallow curve would be ideal for shaping a smooth eye socket. The v shapes could carve wonderful textures, including fur or hair. There was even a square shaped gouge. Some of them had more shallowly bent tips, while others had deeper shapes. They were all worthy of ownership.

“Here,” David said. “Try it.” Ellie glanced down to see David slide a chunk of wood toward her. As she picked it up and turned it this way and that, she was pleasantly surprised to see the possibility of a train engine within the grain. Touching the gouge against a corner of the wooden block, she pressed it in and felt the satisfying bite of metal into wood. She did it again, and again. Then she picked up another gouge and worked on the wood, feeling it give against the pressure until the metal shaped the beginnings of a train window.

She was so lost in her craft that Ellie startled when Jesse asked, “How long are you going to be?”

She wouldn’t mind spending all day with these tools. She’d already begun the shaping of the cow catcher at the front of the block. It wouldn’t look the same using just her carving knife, but Ellie reluctantly laid the gouge and the wooden block down on the work table. “I can go now.”

“If you want to stay longer, I could come back for you later.”

“That’s a good idea,” David said.

As much as she wanted to lose herself in carving for the rest of the day with David’s new tools, Ellie didn’t want to stay here without her brother. Before she could think of how to excuse herself politely, Mr. Unger called, “David!”

“It sounds like you’re busy right now,” Ellie said, “and I’m sure Mama could use my help at home.”

“Keep it,” David said, pushing the block of wood into Ellie’s hand. “Show me when you’re done.” Then he hurried out of the shed with Jesse and Ellie behind him. Glancing up, Ellie saw clouds bullying each other across the sky.

Ellie wasn’t surprised to see Mr. Unger with his customary big straw hat that overshadowed his eyes in sun or shadow, but she was startled to see none other than Curtis Locken approaching the plank bridge on a his big brown horse with Moses riding along behind him on the black.

Giving his armpit a thorough scratching through his plaid shirt, Mr. Unger said to his son, “Mr. Locken wants to look at that piece of land down by the stream and talk to your mother about her preserves. Why don’t you grab a horse and take him down there? When you get back, then we can do the kitchen stuff.”

David scowled, but headed for the barn. “I’ll go with you and get my horse, too,” Jesse said, falling in step beside his bigger friend.

Ellie turned to see how close Curtis was just as the clouds opened up again and let more rainfall. That’s when she noticed that the river water was running over the top of the bridge. That’s when she saw Curtis’s horse stumble. Hooves scrabbling on the wet wood, the horse gave a terrified whinny as the board beneath it gave way. It fell, throwing Curtis off its back. Arms out in a futile attempt to save himself, Curtis Locken splashed into the rushing river water and tumbled downstream between the banks like a broken puppet.

 

 

Chapter 13

 

“Curtis!” Ellie screamed, running to the bank as Moses leapt from his horse and jumped into the river, powerful arms battling the wild water as he went after his friend. Ellie ran along the bank as fast as she could, but lost time from the mud that built up on her shoes, making her stumble. Dense underbrush growing along the river frustrated her. The rain felt as hard as bullets, but she didn’t stop. She had to find Curtis.

It seemed like hours, but must only have been minutes, before the rain slacked off. Pushing damp hair out of her eyes, Ellie stumbled along on boots caked with mud, praying that Moses would be able to pull Curtis out to safety. Maybe he could reach the shore at one of the riverbends.

She wouldn’t think that they may not escape the wild water. She would find them, and they would be alright.

“Where are you going?” Jesse’s angry voice was such a welcome sound that Ellie turned and smiled up at him. Behind Jesse was David on his piebald horse.

“Go!” she yelled, pointing downstream. “Curtis and Moses got washed away! Go find them!”

Jesse leaned down and stuck his hand out toward Ellie.

“Come back for me later!” Ellie yelled, “Go, go!”

Jesse kicked his horse and continued along the river.

David hung back. “I don’t want to leave…”

“Just go find them!” Ellie commanded.

David stared at her for a moment, then rode on, slower than Jesse, with frequent glances backward.

The only thing that mattered was that Curtis was alright.

Ellie kept going, until she saw David holding the reins of his piebald and Jesse’s bay, but Jesse was nowhere in sight. Turning toward the river, Ellie saw Curtis and Jesse kneeling beside Moses, who was face down, propped up on his elbows, coughing as if he’d swallowed half the river. Curtis gave him a mighty thump on his back.

“Are you alright?” Ellie called..

Curtis and Jesse looked up at her at the same time. “Yes,” they both said, then looked at each other in momentary confusion. “It’s Moses who forgot that he’s not as good a swimmer as I am.” Curtis finished.

“Since the river’s pulled him closer to our house, we figured on taking him there,” Jesse said. “Let’s get him on my horse and take him to Ma for more doctoring.” Jesse grinned as he helped boost Moses to his feet and aimed him toward Curtis’s horse. “If he happens to needs a little stitching, Mama can put her best work forward.”

“That’s not funny,” Ellie protested. “He looks really hurt.”

“It’d be alright if she uses pink thread,” Moses croaked, then coughed as if trying to get all the water in Colorado out of his lungs.

Curtis dragged him up to Jesse’s horse and pushed him up onto the saddle, where Moses sagged sideways.

“You’d better get up there and hold him on,” Jesse said.

Curtis’s gaze captured Ellie’s and held. “Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” Ellie said. She was, knowing that Curtis was safe. Putting her hand on his strong arm and giving him a little push, she said, “You take care of Moses now.” The sense of familiarity she felt for him seemed right and proper.

Without warning, Curtis reached out and embraced Ellie, holding her tightly against his sodden chest. “I wasn’t sure I’d ever see you again,” he whispered hoarsely. “You have to know…”

“Come on!” Jesse cried, struggling to hold Moses in the saddle.

Curtis’s gaze lingered on Ellie a second longer, her heart soaring as his eyes said more than he had spoken. Then he whirled around, stepped in the stirrup, and swung himself up behind Moses, his strong arms on either side of the thin man, offering rock-solid support. Then he headed toward Ellie’s house.

Ellie didn’t realize she was staring until David said in a somber tone, “You really like him, don’t you?”

She turned, surprised to remember that David was even there. Realizing that she might have lost Curtis for good gave her the courage to speak what her heart was shouting. There was no point in pretending she didn’t feel as she did. “Yes,” she admitted.

“But I like you.”

“David, I…”

“If he’d never come, then you would still like me,” David declared.

“David,” Jesse said, looking tired all of a sudden. “Let’s not worry about that now,”

“Then when can we worry about it?” David asked, turning to face Jesse.

“Well, according to Moses, the girl has to have a say in it,” Jesse said. He ran his hand through his wet hair, then shivered. “I’m ready to get out of these soggy clothes. Are you coming, Ellie?”

Ellie turned to follow Jesse along the river.

“Take my horse,” David called. Ellie turned to see David heading toward his house, damp shirt clinging to his rounded shoulders.

“Thank you,” Ellie called.

David raised a hand, then dropped it back to his side without looking back.

When Ellie and Jesse got home, Jesse took David’s horse to the barn. Ellie found Moses on the sofa, covered with a blanket, his one eye opened as Linnea fussed with a spoon and a bottle of elixir.

A rattle of firewood falling into the kitchen woodbox made Ellie jump. “Plug your nose,” Jack suggested to Moses while dusting off his hands “That’s what I do when she tries to give that to me.”

Curtis caught Ellie’s eye and smiled. She smiled back as warmth spread through her in spite of her damp clothes.

“Jack, build up the fire so these men can get warm.” Linnea turned toward Ellie and said, “Ellie, go get into something dry. I have enough people to doctor as it is.”

Ellie obeyed, going into her room and taking her carving knife and finished rabbit out of her pocket before peeling off her damp dress, chemise, and knickers. Then she wrapped a blanket around her body for a few minutes, letting it warm her from the outside in while the warmth of Curtis’s presence spread from inside her heart outwards.

Once she’d quit shivering, she pulled on some dry clothes. She never felt fully dressed without her carving knife and a piece of wood to whittle, so she chose her nearly completed eagle and dropped it in her pocket. She added the figure of Papa, then opened her door.

Jesse and Jack were nowhere to be seen. “Where did they go?” Ellie asked.

“To town to fetch supplies for me,” Mama replied.

Moses appeared to be sleeping, lying so still that Ellie studied his chest, making sure that she could detect the slight rise and fall of his breathing. His injured eye was not quite closed, making Ellie wonder again at the incident that created the mangled eye socket.

“If you’ve got something else to do, you could come back for him,” Linnea said to Curtis, nodding at Moses.

“Actually, I do have some business I should conduct,” Curtis said.

“Changing into something dry would be a good start,” Linnea suggested. “You could come on back for supper. I hope you like trout.”

“I expect so,” Curtis replied. “I sure do like catfish.”

Linnea stood and dusted her hands down the front of her apron. “We’ll have potato salad and walnut muffins, too. Now, Ellie, I went and sent your brothers off without noticing that I’m nearly out of black thread, of all things. I need you to go get some at the general store.” She reached into a little bag tied beneath her apron, pulled out a coin, and handed it to Ellie. “Three spools.”

Ellie headed to the door, but Curtis beat her to it and held it open for her. “Thank you,” Ellie said.

Curtis shut the door behind them. “I’ll walk with you.”

Perfectly content to be in his company, Ellie was surprised by his next words. “I’ve heard that you are a good hand at carving.”

“Who told you that?”

“Jesse likes to talk.”

“I enjoy doing it,” Ellie admitted.

“I am interested to see what you’ve done. Will you show me?”

“I have some finished ones hidden in my room,” Ellie replied uncertainly.

“Hidden?”

“You know Mama doesn’t much like me spending time on them,” Ellie reminded him.

“Oh, of course.”

Ellie reached into her pocket. “But I like carrying some to work on. This one isn’t done yet.” She pulled the eagle out.

“May I?” Curtis’s voice was gentle.

Ellie glanced at his outstretched hand, which appeared more inviting than demanding. She held up her carving of an eagle in flight. “It’s not finished.”

Curtis lifted the wooden bird, turning it this way and that, examining it. Ellie tried to read his face, but he looked so serious that she began to wish she hadn’t shown him her work. She didn’t want him to think badly of her. But carving was a part of her that she was tired of hiding.

“Yes, this will do nicely,” Curtis announced, lowering the eagle and smiling at Ellie.

“Do for what?” Ellie watched his fingers curl around her carving, wishing those fingers were curled around her own hand.

“For exporting.”

Ellie moved her gaze from his hand to his eyes. Was he making fun of her? He gave her a steady look in return. “People would want to buy that?” Ellie asked.

“Oh, yes. There is an intense interest not only along the Eastern seaboard, but also in Europe about things from the Wild West. I assure you, I can sell all you make.”

Ellie’s mind spun with possibilities. Would Mama frown on her carving if it brought an income? How could she call it useless if it helped put food on the table? “But it’s not finished,” Ellie protested.

Curtis handed it back to her. “Don’t take too long on it. Rugged carvings would fetch a handsome price, even more than polished pieces. Buyers are interested in experiencing the rough, wild adventure of the west. Do you have any more?”

Ellie hesitated, then pulled out her carving of Papa. Curtis took it from her and turned it this way and that. “Very lifelike,” he said. “You have a real talent.”

Ellie took the carving back. “I would never sell that one,”

“How do you feel about trying your hand at carving Indians?”

Startled, Ellie said, “I don’t know that I could.”

“If you can carve that,” Curtis said, gesturing toward her pocket, “then you could carve anything.” Just then, the hotel came into sight, and Curtis asked, “Do you mind waiting a moment while I change?”

“Not at all.”

Ellie waited in a red upholstered chair in the hotel lobby until Curtis returned from his room, looking much more comfortable in dry clothes. Then Curtis took her hand and led her outside, heading toward the general store. Ellie was glad of his touch, even if he did it just to help her cross the slippery road.

Ellie gazed longingly at the activity going on at train station across the street from the hotel. Several men stacked crates, preparing to load them on the expected train while people milled about on the platform, some coming, some going. Ellie didn’t even know Curtis was watching her until he asked, “Would you like to go take a look?”

“I can’t… the station master…”

“Will say nothing if you are in my care,” Curtis announced, wrapping his arm around her waist. “I will take full responsibility for keeping you off the tracks.”

Ellie felt a perverse satisfaction as she walked up onto the station platform again, feeling emboldened by the sound of her boot heels clacking against the rough wooden flooring. She studied the crates being loaded and piled up, imagining her carvings packed inside with soft dried grass surrounding them to keep them from cracking or chipping in transit.

When she looked up, she noticed middle aged Mrs. Demar sitting on the station bench, a hat on her head with flowers tucked in on top of the brim, and a satchel at her side. Mrs. Demar was rather colorless, her beige dress a close match to her skin, which was a similar shade to her pale hair. Moving closer, Ellie said, “Hello, Mrs. Demar.”

Mrs. Demar glanced up and nodded. “Hello.”

Remembering her manners, Ellie said, “Mrs. Demar, have you made the acquaintance of Mr. Curtis Locken?”

Mrs. Demar glanced up at Curtis, then straightened her back and patted a bit of beige hair at the back of her neck. “No, I don’t believe I have.”

Curtis took Mrs. Demar’s gloved hand. “My pleasure, ma’am.” He bent over and touched his lips to the back of her glove.

Mrs. Demar gave a slight smile in return, her cheeks blushing a becoming shade of pink. Ellie decided that her pink dress would have done wonders for Mrs. Demar’s complexion.

“Are you taking the train?” Ellie asked.

“I am going to visit my sister,” Mrs. Demar said, folding her hands carefully in her lap so that the back of the kissed hand was on top.

“I hope all is well.”

“She’s feeling poorly, but I will soon set her to rights.” Mrs. Demar absently stroked the back of her hand with one finger, a smile slipping across her mouth.

“We’d better finish that errand for your mother.” Curtis said. Before turning away, he said to Mrs. Demar, “I wish you a pleasant journey,’ and gave her a sweeping bow.

Mrs. Demar flashed him a bright smile. “Thank you.”

“Get offa there!” Sheriff Childs yelled.

Startled, Ellie looked up to see the sheriff moving toward her with short steps, favoring his left leg a little. “I tol’ you ta stay away from the station!”

“She’s with me,” Curtis said, taking a step in front of Ellie.

“That’s not what I tol’ her,” Sheriff Childs said, standing squarely in front of them, sticking his thumbs into his waistband, close to his guns. “I said no comin’ ta the station.”

“For what reason?” Curtis asked.

“What reason?” Sheriff Childs sputtered. “Because she falls on the tracks, creates a disturbance, is bad for bizness.”

“I will keep her off the tracks,” Curtis said, pulling Ellie’s arm into the crook of his elbow. “She will not disturb anyone while I’m with her, and we are considering buying train tickets. How can that be bad for business?”

“Well, if you’re taking her away from here, then that’s different.” The Sheriff made sure to give Ellie a disapproving glance. “If’n you’d listen, Missy, you’d live longer.”

“What’s going on?” Jesse called, hurrying across the station platform toward them. Jack followed more slowly, carrying a sack of flour and a bulging cloth bag.

“She’s not suppos’ to be on this here staton platform,” the sheriff said.

“Is there a law against it?”

Sheriff Childs pulled himself up taller, although he was still shorter than Jesse. “On my say-so.”

“But is there a law?”

Sheriff Childs pointed at the platform. “The station master’s in charge of this here station, and the trains, an’ he said keep her off.”

“I do believe it would be the train owners who are in charge of the trains and the station,” Jesse reasoned.

“Excuse me,” Jack said. “Will you give me a hand, Jesse? We still have to go to the milliners.”

Jesse glanced at his brother, “You carry the food, I’ll carry the hat.” He grinned. “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” Then Jesse turned to Ellie. “Are you alright?”

Ellie nodded as Curtis said, “We have the situation in hand.” Jesse glanced at her hand secured in his elbow and smiled knowingly. “Goodbye, Sheriff,” Jesse said.

Sheriff Childs grunted and moved off the platform, his spurs jangling while Jesse followed his brother.

Ellie turned to looked at Curtis as he steered her toward the general store. “We’re buying train tickets?” she asked.

Curtis lifted his shoulders an inch and then dropped them. “At some future point in time, I am likely to buy a train ticket. You may buy a train ticket. I did not say to the sheriff that we would be buying tickets on the same train at the same time, although that is something I would certainly look forward to.”

Ellie could find no fault in his reasoning.

Once they bought the thread, Ellie stepped out the door and stood on the porch, looking up at Curtis expectantly.

Curtis returned her gaze for a moment before asking, “Do you have something else you need to do?”

“No. I thought you did.”

“Why, no, I don’t believe I do.”

“You told Mama you had some business to conduct.”

“Ah, yes,” Curtis said. “I am almost finished with that. There’s one more thing I need to do. This way, please.”

He led her back on the path toward her home. “Where could you possibly conduct business outside of the center of town?” Ellie asked, glancing at the trees on either side of the road.

“Didn’t I talk to you about selling your carvings?” Curtis asked gently.

“Well, yes.”

“That was business.”

“Yes.”

Curtis turned from the path, leading Ellie to a place behind a copse of young trees that shielded them from the road. “And this is the other part of my business.” He gazed at her with such loving intensity that Ellie felt like she’d be happy looking into his eyes forever. Still focused on her face, he lowered his mouth to hers. She didn’t move as his warm lips touched hers, moving slightly as he cupped his hands behind her head.

Heart beating warm and happy, she responded as naturally as as if she was born to slide her hands up his muscled arms to lock behind his neck and move her mouth against his. The curls at the ends of his hair slid across her fingers as his lips lingered on hers, making her so happy she felt weightless.

When he pulled back at last, Ellie’s breath came fast and shallow as she stared up into his blue eyes in wonder. Keeping his gaze fixed on her, Curtis lowered himself until he was kneeling on the ground.

“Wha…?” she began.

Curtis pressed a finger to her tingling lips. “Hear me out, please.” Grasping her hands, his warm voice flowed over her, filling her with a desire to hear it for the rest of her life. “Miss Eleanor Ransom, you have intrigued me ever since I met you.”

Ellie looked down at his handsome, earnest face uncertainly. Was this real? How could she even think that with the kiss he’d just bestowed, the love that showed plain in his soft blue eyes, making it so she almost couldn’t breathe? She wanted to carve that expression in a piece of wood so that she would have it to gaze on for the rest of her life.

What would Papa think of him? Certainly better than he thought of the children who’d called her “Skunk Girl.” Even in better times, Indians coming into town to trade had stepped back from her, staring. When Ellie asked, “Why are they looking at me like that?” her mother’s awkward fingers tried to tuck Ellie’s white streak deeper into her braid.

“It’s because they’ve never seen such beautiful hair,” Wilburn said.

“Except on a skunk.”

Wilburn looked shocked. “My daughter, a skunk?”

“The kids say I am.”

“You mean they don’t know you are a beautiful gift from heaven, sent with a streak of angel light? They just wish they could show that they’re loved clear up to heaven.”

Ellie gazed down at Curtis. Was his love for her as big as Heaven? It didn’t matter that she’d only met him a couple of weeks ago. She was certain that she loved him with all her heart. She felt like she belonged with him, and would go anywhere to be by his side. She’d even leave Mama and Papa.

If only Papa were home where he belonged. Ellie felt a catch in her throat. If Mama loved Papa like Ellie loved Curtis, then a whole new chasm of loss opened up in Ellie’s imagination.

“It’s true we haven’t known each other long,” Curtis said, “but in my life I’ve learned that waiting too long to act can create unnecessary sorrow. I admire your kind of beauty, the one that never fades, in your concern for your friend and your love toward your mother, brothers, and even your father.”

And you. What if I ever lost you like Mama lost Papa? Ellie’s face crumpled as her eyes filled with tears and her heart ached with loss. Pulling her hands free from Curtis, she hid her face behind them and wept.

Curtis was on his feet in an instant, his arms around Ellie in an effort to comfort her. What had he done? He’d intended to ask her to be his wife, even though he didn’t know if she would agree. He’d planned to ask Linnea for permission, of course. If Ellie didn’t feel ready, he was going to ask permission to court her until she was convinced that his love for her was enough for both of them.

But now, before he could even ask the question that burned in his heart, he had said something that brought her to tears. Sometimes it was good for a woman to cry, but not on the brink of a marriage proposal. He pressed his beloved against his chest, wishing he could erase her tears. He had made a personal vow to never intentionally bring her pain, and here he was, trying to hold her together from heartbreak he’d inadvertently brought to her.

Now there was only one thing he could think of to do.

 

 

Chapter 14

 

It was nearly dusk when Curtis saw Ellie home. She was determined to wait until her face did not bear any obvious traces of tears. Ellie explained that her outburst was not Curtis’s fault, that she simply missed her father, but by the set of his jaw, she reasoned that he did not share her view. Too emotionally drained to keep insisting, Ellie trudged along beside Curtis, who remained silent.

When they got to the house, Moses was awake, sitting at the table with a pair of shears, cutting through some deep blue fabric along a chalk line, his head wrapped with a fresh green calico eye patch. Linnea bent over the table, giving him instructions to remove the pins that held the fabric together before he got too close to them with the shears.

“Well, lookee at me,” Moses said, glancing up from his task with a bright smile. “Who’d have thought it’s easier to cut this than buckskin?” As soon as he caught sight of Curtis’s face, his chatter fell away as quickly as his smile.

Just then, Jack and Jesse burst through the door, their arms full of parcels that they dropped on the sofa and floor. Linnea looked up, startled. “Oh, my, is it that late already? You boys certainly took your time.” Neither of her sons looked sorry for it. “Goodness, Ellie, help me get supper on the table. We need to get these men fed.”

“Thank you, ma’am, but I’m afraid I need to be going now,” Curtis said, his voice carefully controlled.

Before Linnea could protest, a single knock on the door preceded David Unger. He strode inside and thrust two jars of preserves toward Linnea, along with two jars of apple butter. “Here. Mama heard that Jesse likes the apple butter particular, so she made me bring them along.” David glanced at Ellie standing next to Curtis, then dropped his gaze.

“You might as well eat with us since you’re here,” Linnea said.

“No, ma’am, I’ve just come to fetch my horse.”

Linnea put both hands out at her sides, palms up. “Is no one hungry?”

“I am,” Jesse said. “You should stay, David. You’re here mostly when supper’s ready, like you can smell it all the way up to your place. Besides, you shouldn’t be going home alone in the dark.”

“Why?”

“They’re saying in town that there are Indians angry about being told to go to the reservations. Some are even messing with the train tracks.”

David scoffed. “How can they? They don’t have mallets or metal tools to break them.”

“Word is that they’re pulling up the rails somehow, burning the ties, or piling up blockades at bends in the line where the engineers don’t have a chance to see what’s coming,” Jesse said. “What’s to stop them from coming into town to wreak further havoc?”

David stole another glance at Ellie, seemingly oblivious that Curtis was staring at her, too. “I’ll stay for a bit,” he said.

Curtis ended up staying for supper, too, although he was a rather silent guest. Not wanting to explain to her mother why she had no appetite, Ellie picked at her food. As soon as she thought she could get away with it, Ellie said, “If I may be excused, I’m rather tired.”

“Look at you,” Linnea said. “You can barely keep your eyes open. I thought they looked red when you came in. Go on with you, get to bed.”

Ellie trudged to her doorway, then turned to look at Curtis, hoping to read something on his face. On their way home, he had knelt on the ground at her feet, like someone about to propose marriage. Is that what he intended? She may never know, because her sudden burst of hysterics had changed things between them. Was there still a chance for them? Or had her emotional outburst made him decide he would be better off spending time with someone else?

She didn’t catch Curtis’s eye, as he was turned toward Moses, listening to something Moses was saying in his deep voice, words so quiet that Ellie couldn’t make them out.

As her gaze swept away from Curtis, Ellie caught David staring at her. She turned away, shut her door, and climbed into bed without even changing. As soon as her head buried itself in the softness of her down pillow, she was asleep.

She dreamed of knocking, but no one was answering the door. She seemed to be stuck in place, unable to get up or walk.

Knock, knock, knock.

“Come in.” Her voice had a dreamlike quality to it.

A faint voice called, “Ellie?”

Ellie sat up, squinting into her dark room..

Knock, knock, knock. The sound seemed to be coming from the glass at her window.

The knocking intensified with desperation. Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock. “Ellie?”

It was a woman’s voice.

Ellie finally stood and stumbled across the room to pull her curtain open. She had just enough time to make out a white face framed in wild red curls before a dark shape crashed into Polly Agar, and Polly disappeared.

 

 

Chapter 15

 

Ellie screamed. Her mother came running, a white muslin nightgown whipping around her limbs as she burst into the room. “What’s wrong?” Linnea asked sharply as Jesse and Jack crowded into the doorway behind her.

Ellie pointed to the window. “P-Polly. I saw Polly. Then she disappeared. Something got her.”

“You must be dreaming,” Linnea said. Her gaze took in Ellie’s dress. “And why aren’t you in your nightclothes?”

Without another word, Jesse dashed from the room, pulling his suspenders up over his shoulders. Jack spun on his heel and followed his brother.

Linnea hurried to the window and looked out. “I don’t believe it,” she whispered.

“What?” Ellie swallowed. “What is it?”

Linnea didn’t answer, but moved aside so Ellie could stand beside her. Ellie got there just in time to see Jesse run up to David, who was crouched over Polly, and grab his shoulders. David shrugged him off. Then Jack appeared, and he and Jesse each seized one of David’s arms and pulled him off.

“Sorry,” Ellie heard David say, his voice muffled through the window glass. “So sorry! I thought you were an Indian!”

“A red-haired Indian?” Jesse yelled in disbelief while Jack helped Polly to her feet.

“I couldn’t tell in the dark.”

“Why were you still out here anyway?” Jesse demanded as Jack disappeared around the corner of the house, supporting a sagging Polly with his arm.

David looked toward Ellie’s window. Ellie drew back, but heard him say, “You told me she saw an Indian. I didn’t see any when I was watching from the shadows beneath the tree last night, like they do, so I had to check again tonight to make sure she was safe.”

“You were under the tree last night? Then it was you Ellie saw, you big jackrabbit!”

Ellie and Linnea hurried into the front room where Ellie opened the door for Jack as he helped Polly to the sofa. When Jack stood up so his mother could get a good look at Polly, Linnea gasped. “He gave you a black eye!”

Polly threw her hands up. “Not David.” As David and Jesse burst through the doorway, Polly continued, “Don’t blame him.” Then she winced and grabbed her upper arm.

“I most certainly will,” Linnea muttered as she hurried to gather some liniment and bandages. “You men must leave,” she commanded. “I’ve got to see to her eye and her arm.”

“Please, Miss Polly, I didn’t mean you any harm,” David pled. “I thought you was an Indian.”

To Ellie’s astonishment, Polly laughed. “Now that’s one for the books!” she said, then laughed again.

Ellie leaned close to Polly’s ear and whispered, “Did he damage your head?”

Polly sobered, and her eyes filled with tears. “No, he didn’t. But I don’t know what’s to become of me, Ellie.”

Ellie looked into Polly’s purple bruised eye. “If David didn’t do that, then who did?”

Polly glanced at the young men who had not followed Linnea’s command to leave. “I-I can’t say.”

“Nonsense,” Linnea said, bustling back to Polly with a couple of jars of liniment and her fabric scrap basket. “Of course you can. As far as I can tell, your mouth is uninjured, and perfectly capable of speaking.” Without giving Polly time to reply, Linnea said, “Get me some warm water, Ellie.” Then she turned to the boys. “Leave.”

“I’m awful sorry, Miss Polly,” David said, his eyes moistening, seeming to beg forgiveness from the injured girl.

“You didn’t…” Polly said just before Linnea put a cloth over her eye, the end trailing down over Polly’s mouth.

When Linnea heard the door close behind the young men, she said, “Now, Polly, if David didn’t give you this black eye, then who did?”

“I fell.” Polly said quickly.

“She had it when I saw her in the buggy on our way home from the woods two nights ago,” Ellie offered.

“What did you fall on?”

“On the, on the pig fence.”

“There are no scrapes,” Linnea said, examining the bruise more closely. “It doesn’t look like it came from a piece of wood.”

Polly’s eyes darted toward Ellie. “I must thank you again for the frog.” She smiled. “It has brought me more joy than anything else in such a long time.”

Linnea’s face scrunched up in puzzlement. It was a face that her husband would have kissed with a merry line such as, “You look a bit like a pumpkin, my dear.”

Before Linnea could ask, Polly pulled the wooden frog from her pocket. “It brings me such comfort,” she said, rubbing the little carving’s back with her thumb.

“I’m glad,” Ellie said.

“May I?” Linnea held out her hand. Ellie tensed as Polly placed the frog on Linnea’s palm. She hadn’t yet had a chance to tell her mother about Curtis’s offer to sell her carvings. There was a lot her mother hadn’t been told.

Linnea turned the carving one way and another. Then her mouth twitched. Ellie braced herself for a scolding, but her mother simply said, “Well, it certainly is whimsical.”

“It’s wonderful,” Polly said, taking it back. Cradling it in both hands, she held it against her heart. “That’s why I knew I could come to you.” She looked up at Ellie again.

“For what?” Ellie asked, so light-headed with fatigue, that she felt as if she were speaking in a dream.

Polly’s eyes cut to Linnea, then back to Ellie. “I mustn’t… I’ve said too much.” She ducked her head and pulled the frog up under her chin.

Linnea cast a puzzled glance at Ellie, who merely raised her eyebrows. “We can help you,” Linnea said, her voice gentle.

Tears rolled down Polly’s face. “There is no help for me. I shouldn’t have come. I’ve only brought more trouble to myself.”

Ellie sat on the floor beside the sofa so she could be nearer to Polly. Touching Polly’s arm, Ellie asked, “What harm is there in telling us?”

Polly’s head jerked up, her eyes full of fear, her mouth clamped shut. In spite of their coaxing, she would say no more.

Linnea finally brought some blankets and convinced Polly to lie down on the sofa. “What about the boys?” Ellie asked.

“They can come in the back door, if they haven’t already,” Linnea said. “Go on to bed. I’ll sit with her awhile.”

Ellie managed to get to her feet, then reached down and gave one of Polly’s hands a gentle squeeze before heading to her room.

The next morning, Ellie was awakened by a terrible shaking. Her eyes flew open to see her mother’s solemn face hovering over her. “She’s gone,” Linnea said.

Ellie struggled to sit up. “What?”

“Polly’s gone. I fell asleep in the rocking chair, but somehow she got out without me hearing her.”

“She didn’t seem to want to stay here, Mama.”

“But she came for a reason. You saw her.”

“Perhaps she only wanted to talk to me,” Ellie said. “She came to my window. I think there were too many people for her to say what she wanted to.”

“Perhaps,” Linnea said. “I can tell you one thing for certain. She did not fall against a pig fence.”

“Maybe we’ll never know,” Ellie said, her heart filled with pity for the skinny red haired girl.

“After breakfast, I will pay the Demar’s a visit,” LInnea declared.

“Only Mr. Demar is home.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw Mrs. Demar at the train station yesterday on her way to visit her sister.”

Linnea’s face tightened. “I see.”

A knock sounded on the door. “Maybe that’s Polly,” Linnea said, hurrying through the doorway.

As Ellie pulled on her dress and quickly gathered her hair at the back of her neck and tied it with a pink ribbon, she heard David’s voice say, “I’d better take Polly home. Mr. Demar’s pretty mad that she’s not there.”

“She’s not here,” Linnea said. “She left sometime in the night, or early this morning.”

“On her own?” David asked with dismay.

“Apparently.”

“I’ve got to find her.”

“We can help, too,” Linnea said. “I’ll tell the boys. But if she doesn’t want to be found, she probably won’t be.”

“I can find her,” David said. “She needs my help.”

Ellie opened the door to her room just in time to see David swipe the back of his hand under his nose as he turned and walked out the door.

Where was Polly? Wherever she was, she’d come to Ellie for some reason, and Ellie hadn’t been any help. “I need to look for her,” Ellie said.

“Are you sure that’s wise after what Jesse said about Indians yesterday?” Linnea asked. “We’ll just let your brothers look. We’ll stay here in case she comes back.”

“But it’s daytime. I don’t think Indians come in the daylight. Where is Jesse anyway?”

“Both boys left early today.’

“Then I’ll get Curtis Locken to help me.”

Linnea studied her daughter. More slowly, she asked, “Are you sure that’s wise?”

For an answer, Ellie put on her hat.

“I need you to gather the eggs before you go anywhere,” Linnea said firmly, taking her daughter’s hand. “We can’t afford to waste food.” Linnea turned Ellie’s hand over. “It’s so rough. Tell me, what is it that makes carving worth this?”

“I like the surprise of seeing what comes out of a piece of wood. Sometimes I can see what it is even before I carve it.”

“Well, I can’t pretend to understand your need to do it,” Linnea said. Then she sighed. “You are your father’s daughter.” Her eyes turned toward the window. Although she didn’t say anything, Ellie sensed that she was with her husband again, even if only in her mind. Ellie wanted more than anything to bring Papa home to be with all of them again for real. “Well, if you are determined, then you must do what your heart tells you.”

Ellie stared at her mother in surprise. Had she just been given permission to carve without trying to hide it? Linnea’s gaze was still trained on the window, and Ellie didn’t want to ask in case she’d misunderstood.

On her way back to the house with the egg basket Ellie heard hoofbeats and looked up to see Moses riding toward the house. Her gaze darted past him, but Curtis was nowhere in sight. When her eyes flew back to Moses’s face, his single eye looked at her in apology.

Ellie hurried toward him. “Where’s Curtis?”

Moses looked away. “Gone.”

Ellie felt a shiver run down her back. Had he abandoned her? Had she so offended him by her tears yesterday that he had to leave town so he would never see her again? “Where did he go?”

Moses shook his head. “He ask’ me not to tell you.”

Boldly, Ellie grabbed the bridle on Moses’s horse. “Moses, you have to tell me. Did he go back to Georgia?”

“No!” Moses looked genuinely startled. “He wouldn’ go back there, not to stay, no, ma’am. He has no family lef’ there anyway, at least none that means anything to him.”

“Where is he?”

“I told him not to go. I told him you wouldn’ like it.”

“I don’t like it even more if you don’t tell me where he went.”

Moses glanced at Ellie, then looked away again and adjusted himself in his saddle. She wondered if he would ride away if she didn’t keep hold of the horse. Ellie determined that she would stay right where she was until she got answers. “Tell me.”

Moses stared off into the distance. Ellie waited. At last, Moses let out a long breath and mumbled something. The only thing she caught was the last word that sounded like, “Papa.”

Ellie’s voice turned as hard as her carving blade. “What about Papa?”

Moses sighed, then faced Ellie and said, “He went to find him.”

In spite of the warm spring breeze, a tremor ran through Ellie. “I knew Papa was alive!”

“Four or five weeks ago, I saw your father in an Indian camp.”

Ellie’s stomach twisted. “How did you know it was him?”

“From the picture.” Moses gestured toward the house. “He’s thinner now, and darker.”

“Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Moses dropped his gaze, but his voice was firm. “Didn’ know if I should. It wasn’ my business.”

“But it was my business!” Ellie cried. “He’s my father!” Anguish rising in her chest, Ellie pictured Curtis riding into a hostile Indian camp alone to rescue her father. She should be with him, along with her brothers.

But they didn’t believe her. She doubted they’d believe Moses, either. They’d probably claim that she’d put him up to it.

“Why did you let him go alone?” Ellie demanded. Thoughts of Curtis being killed and her father being alive jumbled up in her mind, making her head ache.

“Told him I’d go wit’ him, but he wanted me to look out for you, and keep you safe from renegade Indians sneaking into town. I planned on arguing wit’ him this morning, but he was already gone.”

“Come inside,” Ellie said, her thoughts racing. “We’ve got to tell Mama. She’s got some coffee, and you can have what’s left of breakfast.” Mama would know what to do. She might not believe that Wilburn was still alive, but Moses would tell her he was, and she would know what to do.

“Mama,” Ellie said as Moses followed her into the kitchen.

“Hello,” Linnea said with a smile. “Would you join us for breakfast?”

“Mama, Moses just told me something.”

“Wait a minute,” Mama said. “Sit down, and let me get you some food.” Ellie waited impatiently while Mama served up the coffee, stew, and boiled eggs. It seemed important that Mama be in a good mood to hear her news.

As soon as Mama sat down across from Moses, Ellie opened her mouth to tell her about Curtis, but Mama said, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to know.” She leaned on her arms, folded on the table. “Will you please tell us what happened to you, Moses? How did you injure your eye?”

“But, Mama!” Ellie cried. “What about…?”

“Hush,” Mama said before Ellie could finish.

Feeling as if her news would make her burst, Ellie put a hand over her mouth, telling herself, Just keep Mama happy.

Moses sighed. “It’s not a nice story.”

Linnea reached out and touched his hand. “We won’t force you to tell, but we care about you. We consider you a friend.”

When Moses looked up. Linnea gave him an encouraging smile.

Moses sighed and dropped his head. With his gaze focused on the tabletop, he said, “Curtis and his cousin, Master Lee Locken, grew up almost like brothers. They took me along on their jaunts so I could pick up their shot arrows, clean their fish, clean up after picnics, and things like that. They even taught me their schoolwork so I could do their lessons for them.” Moses grinned, his eyes still focused downward. “They were nice enough, considering I was a slave. But when they got older, both of them got to liking the same girl.”

Ellie folded her hands, not sure she wanted to hear of another girl who’d captured Curtis’s eye.

“Miss Annabelle Ammons was nice to look at, for a white man, with all that golden hair, but her insides was spoiled.” He went quiet.

“You will not be held to anything you tell us,” Linnea said gently.

Ellie sat still, unsure if she wanted to hear more. What did Moses mean that Annabelle Ammons was spoiled? Did Curtis think that she, Ellie, was spoiled?

“Miss Annabelle had mean ways. If she was with Master Lee, she’d tease him about Master Curtis. Same thing with Master Curtis, teasing him about Master Lee. She didn’t love neither one. She played them for fools for her own amusement.

“Then war came, and they both got called out. Master Lee was eager to go, but not Curtis.”

Ellie couldn’t help noticing that Moses didn’t use the title “Master” for Curtis’s name.

“Master Lee teased Curtis some, all in good fun. When they both went off, I stayed home and prayed they’d return safe. My prayer was answered when both came back, but the devil came with them. Curtis had aged and turned quiet, while Master Lee came back still spoilin’ for a fight.”

Moses went silent for so long that Ellie asked softly, “Then what?”

“Miss Annabelle was in the house again, teasin’ worse than before, maybe ‘cause there were fewer men around.

“One day she came while Curtis was in the stable. Lee called me in to say Miss Annabelle wanted mint tea. I knew I was a free man, but it didn’t seem real. I was still puzzling out what to do, but it was the most natural thing to serve them both tea like I’d done all my life.

“When I got back, Master Lee was at the bookcase on the far side of the room. I set Miss Annabell’s tea on the coffee table, keepin’ my eyes on the teacup, but I can see her watching me. I don’ look up at her face. I was taught not to look at white women unless they ordered me to.”

“You couldn’t even look at her?” Ellie asked in astonishment.

“No, ma’am.”

“But you look at us.”

Moses raised his eye again, looking first at Ellie, then Linnea, then back to Ellie. “I’ve been gone awhile. Things aren’t the same. I have new ways now. I didn’t never want to look at her mean eyes anyway.”

“What happened after you brought the tea?” Linnea asked.

“I put Master Lee’s down, then walked over to stand by the door in case they asked for somethin’ else.” Moses gave a shudder. Linnea put a reassuring hand on his shoulder, and Moses wiped his good eye with the back of his hand. Linnea fetched him a soft piece of fabric, which he pressed against his eye. With the fabric shielding his face, Moses said, “The next thing I know, Miss Annabelle’s screaming. Startled, I looked to Master Lee as he hurried to ask her what’s wrong? Annabelle’s pointing at me sayin’, ‘He looked at me, like he wants me!’ But I never did.

“Master Lee charges me like a hellcat, knocks me down, and sits on my chest with his knee in my throat, eyes all wild like a crazed bull. I can smell that he’s been drinkin’ brandy.” Moses went silent for a moment. When Linnea put her hand on his shoulder, he sighed. “When I try to speak, he tells me, ‘Shut your mouth.’ I’m so used to following his orders that I do what he says. Then he stuck his hand out toward Miss Annabelle and says, ‘Gimmee a spoon.’”

Cold horror crept into Ellie’s stomach.

“My heart beat so hard, it was about to break,” Moses said. “With my eyes rolling around in my head with crazy fear, I saw Miss Annabelle’s face with an evil smile, like she’s enjoyin’ this. She grabs her teaspoon all eager-like and shoves it in Master Lee’s hand. Then he presses down on my forehead and screams, ‘I’ll teach you to never to look at my woman.’ Then he pushes that spoon right into my eye. It hurt so awful, I screamed. I tried to fight back, but I was dizzy because I didn’t have enough air.

“Then I felt Lee lifting up off my chest. When I looked through the tears and blood, my good eye saw Curtis lifting Lee up, Lee’s feet scramblin’ against the floor. When Curtis looked at me, angry as I’d never seen him, I was sure he’d help Master Lee finish the job. But I didn’t want to be blind.”

Moses went quiet and dropped his head in his hands, his shoulders shaking. Linnea patted his back and made soothing noises until Moses finally raised his head and wiped his eyes. He sniffed. “Then Curtis surprised me when he punched Master Lee right in the face. When he fell to the floor like a sack of corn, Miss Annabelle starts laughin’ this high, strange laugh I never heard before. It was eerie, like ghosts rising up from their graves.

“Curtis hauls me to my feet and hurries me out the door to the stable. He patched my eye the best he could, then saddled his horse and put me on it. I hurt so bad. With my mind focused on my misery, I kep both eyes closed and didn’t even notice him putting his saddlebags on, too.

Then Master Lee came roaring into the stable, saying he was getting a lynching mob to take care of me once and for all.

“Curtis hit my horse, says, ‘Go!’ and the horse takes off, galloping into the night.

“Over time, I made my way west, using food and money Curtis had in his saddlebags to survive. When some Indians found me sleeping by a river, I thought they’d burn me at the stake for sure. Turns out the women folks fought over who got to claim me as her slave. Sunning Sparrow was the fiercest, so she won. She claimed that with my war wound, I was the most handsome man she ever saw.

“The tribe moved around, and I saw lots of Indian villages, safe from harm with my owner, and much admired for my wounded eye. They wanted to touch my hair, too.” A faint grin crossed Moses’s face. “They called me a buffalo man. Then just a little while ago, I came across a trapper from my Georgia home town who only started trapping after the war. He tol’ me Curtis was headed to Rambling, on the lookout for me. I asked him to send a telegram to tell Curtis that I was coming. I jus’ had to come thank Curtis for saving me.”

Moses sighed and leaned back in his chair. “So I ran away from my owner, and here I am.”

Ellie took a breath. Hearing of Moses’s terrible ordeal had turned her stomach.

“I’d do anything for Curtis,” Moses said.

“You are a good friend to him,” Linnea said.

“He’s a better friend to me,” Moses replied.

“Where is he now? Why didn’t he come with you”

Ellie glanced at Moses for courage, then said, “He’s gone after Papa.”

Linnea’s face blanched. “What?”

“Moses recognized Papa’s picture. He saw him in an Indian village awhile back. Then he told Curtis, and Curtis went looking for him.”

 

 

Chapter 16

 

Linnea turned to Moses, all good humor drained from her expression. “Did you see my husband in an Indian village?”

Squirming under her gaze, Moses replied, “I thought so, leastways, someone who looked like him.”

“Misfortune befalls many men,” Linnea said, turning to her daughter. “Someone who looks like him is not necessarily him. Jack looks like him, but is not your father.”

Ellie sat rigidly, dismayed at her mother’s refusal to believe. No matter what might come of it, Ellie had to go and find Curtis before the Indians found him and killed him. Life without him would simply be too hard to bear. She had no illusions about storming at Indian village to free her father. She was just about prayed out, but her stubbornness had her sending up another silent plea for Papa to somehow find his way home, if nothing else, to prove her mother wrong.

Then her brothers burst in the door.

“Tell me where you got it!” Jesse demanded.

“Got what?” Jack asked.

“You know!” Jesse pointed to a dainty handkerchief just visible in Jack’s fist. “That.”

“You want to be a lawyer,” Jack said. “You find the evidence and figure it out yourself.”

“Boys,” Linnea warned.

“Fine,” Jack replied with a calmness that seemed to infuriate his brother. “Someone gave it to me.”

“Who?” Jesse demanded, his eyes narrowing into angry squints.

After a pause, Jack opened his hand. “Maisie.”

“Why would she give you something like that?”

Jack’s mouth quirked up into the ghost of a smile, as if reliving a pleasant memory. “Well, she fed me a tart. I got some of it on my lip. She was just being polite in giving me her handkerchief to clean it up.”

“Then why do you still have it?” Jesse demanded.

“So many questions.” One of Jack’s eyebrows rose. “You seem ready for the courtroom without further schooling. I couldn’t give it back to her dirty, could I? Once it’s washed, I’ll return it.” Jack got a dreamy look as his eyes shifted to focus out the window.

“How about if I save you the trouble?” Jesse said. “I’ll take it back for you.”

“That’s not necessary. I borrowed it, I should return it.”

Linnea stood up and said firmly, ““I wish you boys would get along.”

“I have no argument with Jesse,” Jack said.

“We have some bigger problems here than a handkerchief.”

Both boys looked at her.

“First of all, have either of you seen Polly? David was here earlier saying that Mr. Agar was upset that she wasn’t home.”

Jack shook his head, “I haven’t seen her since last night.”

Jesse gave his brother a hard look. “Me neither, but I’ll put my lawerly skills to work and find her for you.”

“Not only that, Ellie convinced Curtis to go looking for your father, just because Moses saw a white man in an Indian camp.”

“It wasn’t like that!” Ellie protested.

Jesse turned to Moses. “Did you see our father?”

“Looked like him.”

“There are a lot of tall men with dark hair,” Linnea said, her voice tight.

“If we chase two rabbits we won’t catch either one,” Jesse declared. “I”m going out to find Polly, and then we can figure out what to do about Curtis.”

As Jesse went out the door, Jack said, “I will also join in the search.” He glanced down at the handkerchief in his hand.

“Here,” Linnea said, putting out her hand. “I’ll take care of that.”

“Thank you, Mama.” Jack handed it over, then went outside.

“I’m going to look, too,” Ellie said.

“Look for who?” Linnea asked. “I will not have you traipsing after Curtis Locken on your own.”

“Moses will go with me.”

“Into savage territory? I think not,” Linnea said, her voice firm.

“We could help look for Polly.”

“Moses is free to do as he wishes, but we will wait until your brothers return.” As Linnea moved to the washbasin, Moses asked, “Could I help you with that? I know how to wash.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Linnea gave Moses the handkerchief, then sat at the table, her head in her hands.

Moses splashed some water in the basin and scrubbed the handkerchief with a bar of homemade soap. Once it passed his close inspection, he rinsed it and hung it over the wooden bar by the sideboard.

As Ellie sat at the table watching him work in the kitchen, she couldn’t help wondering if Curtis was hungry right now. Had he taken any food with him? How about Papa? Did he have enough to eat?

After a few moments, Linnea stood up and got busy sewing, pinning a maroon colored bodice to a long, gathered skirt.

Aching to go after Curtis, Ellie carved on her dancing Papa figure with a vengeance, not even trying to hide her work. Mama never looked at her, so she didn’t see how much the carving looked like Wilburn. Even though she was afraid of what might happen to her out in the wilderness, Ellie was determined to talk Moses into helping her go look for Curtis. But what to do about Mama? They could just leave. Mama couldn’t physically stop them. But would Moses do it? Ellie didn’t think so. She hated doing nothing. She would rather die trying to find Curtis than just sit there and wait.

But it turned out she didn’t need to wait for long.

Jack burst through the door. “Polly has been found.”

“Mr. Demar locked her in the shed,” Jesse declared as he hurried in behind Jack. “She got back in time to start breakfast after she left here this morning, but he knew she’d been gone.”

“How?” Linnea asked.

Jesse shrugged. “Perhaps he visited her room in the night.”

“No!” Linnea gasped.

“Whatever reason, he said he’d teach her not to run away, and locked her in the shed.”

Linnea’s mouth was in a straight line. “He lied to David about Polly not being there.”

“Sure did. David was spittin’ mad, I’ll tell you. He scooped her up and carried her to his horse, then took her home with him. His parents took her in. David’s staying in his woodworking shed and letting her have his room.” Jesse glanced at Ellie. “Looks like you have been replaced in his affections.”

“Never mind that,” Linnea said. “It appears that Mr. Demar must be the one who hit her.”

Jesse nodded, his brow drawing down in a frown. “There’s no law against it. But there ought to be.”

Jack added, “Mr. Demar says he’s going to the sheriff to get Polly back.”

“No!” Linnea said, rising to her feet.

“He can’t make her go back,” Jesse replied. “At least, I don’t think so.”

“I’ll see to it,” Linnea said, pulling a shawl around her shoulders. “Come with me, Jesse. Your interest in law will help me talk sense into that old Sheriff Childs.”

“If I’m talking law with the sheriff, I’d better dress the part.” Jesse hurried upstairs, then came thumping back down, pulling on a vest that covered his suspenders. “You know, Mama, I’ve been thinking that I ought to get myself off to lawyer school.”

“You’re young yet.”

“But I want to make things right for folks. The sooner I start, the better.” Glancing at Jack, he said, “My life’s not going here how I planned it anyway, considering the lady has a say in what she wants.”

“We’ll talk on the way.” Stopping in the doorway, Linnea swept Jack and Moses with her gaze. “Ellie is not to be left alone. Do you understand?” Her eyes stopped on Ellie, then she stared at Moses. “You promise not to leave her alone?”

“Yes’m.”

Her eyes turned to Jack. “She should be safe enough here with the two of you. I’ll be back as soon as I get this other mess straightened out. We’ll talk to the sheriff about Curtis, too.”

“Shall I hitch up the buggy?” Jesse asked.

“No time for that,” Linnea answered. “Besides, I could do with a walk before I address Sheriff Childs.”

Once they left, Jack retrieved the handkerchief from the wooden rail and folded it into his pocket. “El, are you alright?” he asked.

“I’m perfectly fine.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No.”

“Sorry about the strife,” Jack said, clearly uncomfortable. “If you don’t really need me…” he gestured to his pocket.

“Go ahead,” Ellie said. “Moses said he’d stay.”

Jack glanced at Moses, who nodded solemnly.

“All right then,” Jack said with relief. “I hope it all works out for the best.”

“Thank you, Jack.”

As soon as they were alone, Ellie turned to Moses. “I need you to show me where that Indian village is.”

“I want to help Curtis, but I don’t want to cross your mother.”

“Do you truly mean to leave Curtis to face Indians alone? You’ve seen how whites and Indians get along.”

“He took a gun.”

“One gun?” Ellie cried. “Against how many indians who also have guns?”

Moses’s eyes cut to the door.

“You’re a free man, free to think for yourself and do what your conscience tells you.”

Moses scratched his brow beneath his eyepatch.

He seemed so complacent that Ellie wanted to shake him. “I think…I think Curtis was going to ask me to marry him,” Ellie blurted. Moses sat up straight and stared at her. “But I… I started cry about my father, so he never finished what he was going to say. Maybe I was wrong, but I can’t just leave him out there in the wilderness.”

Moses dropped his hands to the table and studied his fingers weaving themselves together, then apart, then back together again. “Being a slave to a kind master is easier than freedom.”

“No, it’s not,” Ellie insisted. “it is better to do whatever your heart tells you, not what someone else commands, even if it’s my mother.” Ellie pressed her hand to her chest. “My heart tells me I can’t leave Curtis out in the wilderness alone. I’m leaving. If you don’t come with me, then you’re breaking your promise, because you promised to stay with me. You didn’t promise to stay here.”” She strode toward the door.

Suddenly Moses slapped his hands down on the table so loudly that Ellie jumped and turned. He stood erect, his narrow shoulders seeming to fill the room, his head towering above Ellie. “I use my freedom to go look for Curtis, too, and keep my promise to your mother.”

Nearly dizzy with relief, Ellie said, “Thank you! I’ll write a note and change into my riding skirt. You pack some food. And bandages.”

Not finding any paper, Ellie hastily wrote with charcoal on what she hoped was a piece of scrap cloth. She said Moses was with her, as promised, and that Mama shouldn’t worry.

Moses met her at the front door with a bag of food and a handful of rolled fabric scraps. When they stepped outside, the sun was getting high in the sky. A slight breeze blew Ellie’s hair against her back, and she shivered.

 

 

Chapter 17

 

Ellie hurried toward Moses’s horse. When he hung back, she turned and asked, “What’s wrong?”

“It’s hard on a horse, carrying both of us,” Moses mumbled.

Hating the delay, Ellie stopped and thought a moment. “Well, since Jesse went with Mama, his bay ought to be here.” She strode to the barn with Moses following behind, leading his black horse. The bay greeted them with his ears flicked forward. Moses helped Ellie saddle him. Then she led him out of the barn and swung up into the saddle. “Let’s go.”

Moses looked from Ellie to the horizon and back again. Then he slowly nodded and led the way out of town.

As the afternoon wore on, Ellie scanned the landscape, looking for any sign of Curtis, his horse, a campfire, or anything that might lead her to him. She wouldn’t let herself think that anything bad had happened, that his body might be lying in one of the ravines they passed. As strong as he might be, Curtis was alone, which made him more vulnerable in the wilderness. If he died, she felt as if she would die, too.

At last the sun sank toward the western horizon, leaving room for darkness to begin creeping up the Eastern sky.

When Moses stopped his horse, Ellie watched him point to a thin line of dark railroad track running like a thread across the landscape in front of them. Then he moved his hand to point out a column of smoke rising from behind a stand of trees around a bend in the tracks.

Ellie sat up straight. That could be Curtis’s fire. “You did it, Moses!” she cried.

“We’ll see,” Moses replied, his tone grim.

As they rode around the bend, Moses pulled back on the horse’s reins as soon as he saw the bonfire. It wasn’t as it should be. Instead of a small cooking fire burning on flat ground, the huge fire was popping and dancing directly on top of the railroad tracks. “Uh oh,” Moses said, pulling his horse’s head around.

“What’s going on?” Ellie asked, leaning sideways on the bay to see around Moses better.

“Nothing good,” Moses replied.

Just then, three muscled Indian boys who looked younger than Ellie’s brothers leaped out in ambush from the brush along the side of the tracks. The one with the thickest arms sat on a paint horse, holding a lance aimed at Moses. The the tall, thin one aiming at Moses rode a chestnut pony, and the shortest one, his expression as fierce as his companions, held a drawn arrow on Ellie from the back of an appaloosa.

“Go!” Ellie screamed, turning her horse. As quick as a snake, the smaller Indian reached out and grabbed the bay’s reins, jerking them from her hands. In spite of Moses sitting on his black horse in front of her, Ellie suddenly felt helpless and vulnerable.

Moses dropped his reins and spoke a few words that Ellie couldn’t understand. The tallest Indian boy sneered and said something in a voice that didn’t sound very nice. Then the tall boy’s gaze diverted to something behind Moses and Ellie, and a feral smile crossed his face.

Curtis! Ellie turned, half expecting to find Curtis riding up on his horse to rescue them. Instead, she watched the telltale plume of steam from a far off train moving closer by the second.

The tall Indian barked an order at Moses.

“Sorry, Miss Ellie, it’s time to get down and socialize with our new-found friends.”

Ellie swallowed. “Do you know these Indians?”

“Not these particular pups,” Moses said. “They have an idea of defeating the whites and bringing honor back to their tribe all by theirselves.”

So these young men were on the warpath, and they had weapons. This was not the way Ellie had imagined her life ending. She was supposed to find Curtis, and somehow convince him to spend the rest of his life with her. Coming for him had been a risk, she knew, but she desperately wanted to see him again. If she could just be folded into the safety of his strong arms and have one more of his long, warm kisses to fill her from head to toe with sustainable joy, then she would be content to face anything, even death.

Moses dismounted, then looked up at Ellie. There was nothing else to do but get off the bay. Would Jesse be angry at her for losing his horse? She hoped not.

The short Indian, who looked as if he’d either had his nose broken or was born with a disfigurement, took hold of both their horse’s reins, and led them off into the tall brush. The tall Indian dismounted, allowing his horse to follow the others as he trotted down the tracks toward the oncoming train.

Moses kept himself between the mounted boy with the lance and Ellie as the Indian boy nudged them closer to his tall companion. The tall one positioned himself beside the tracks, a strange eagerness in his posture as he focused on the trail of steam charging toward him like a wild buffalo.

“What is he doing?” Ellie asked.

“Proving his bravery, mos’ likely,” Moses said.

“How?”

“He’s going to jump the train.”

Ellie swung toward Moses, her eyes wide. The boy with the lance shouted something at her with a little jab of his weapon. Moses barked a single word at the boy, who looked at him with a startled gaze. Then his brow creased like a sulky child.

“But that’s crazy,” she whispered. “Did they build the fire to slow the train so he could do this?”

“No crazy.” Startled, Ellie turned to see the Indian boy with the odd nose standing near her. All that was visible of his horse was its tail swishing at the edge of the brush.

“You speak English?” Ellie asked, hope rising as her thoughts focused on Curtis. “Have you seen a tall man, yellow hair, on a brown horse?”

The short boy tried pulling himself up to his full height while the one with the lance gave Ellie an evil grin that looked out of place on such a young face. “Take all whites village, kill.” He gestured toward the bonfire. “We kill iron horse and whites in belly, too.” He pointed toward his tall companion. “He count great coup.”

A fresh wave of terror coursed through Ellie as she looked into the small Indian’s indignant face. Even though he was not much more than a child, he had weapons and two friends, giving him a distinct advantage in deciding her fate. Perhaps once the tall one was on the train, Moses would come up with a plan to overpower these other two.

The tall one shouted something, and his companions laughed as the train drew closer and closer. What would the engineer do once he saw the fire on the tracks? Although the train would slow for the curve, the brakeman wouldn’t have time to engage the brakes on each car in time to stop before hitting the bonfire.

As the train slowed on the curve, Ellie wanted to run further from the tracks, but the spear pointed at her kept her in place. She watched in horrified fascination as the tall one ran alongside the train. He was swift, but unable to keep pace. The engineer stuck his hand out the window and waved at the youth as if to shoo him away. Then confusion crossed his face as came into full view of the bonfire. When he pulled the train whistle, the tall one opened his mouth in what must have been a triumphant yell, but the sound was lost in the hollow wail of the train whistle, a lonely crescendo pushing up into the evening sky before sinking down again in a parody of a coyote howl.

A glimpse of faces showed in the train windows, some focused on the Indian youth with wide eyes, pointing fingers, and moving mouths.

Then the tall one reached up and grabbed a metal bar fastened to the side of a train car. His body jerked forward as if he his joints were made of string. Ellie winced as the young man lost his hold and slumped to the ground, rolling away from the tracks as the train raced past his still form and hit the bonfire, sending a shower of sparks up into the air, taller than the hotel, red embers mingling with the steam like tiny little tortured souls being swept away in the wind.

Ellie watched, breathless, wondering if the trees would catch fire or if the train would explode from the sparks. The engineer kept his engine on course, and the train disappeared down the tracks, the sound of its metal wheels clicking on the rail joints gradually fading away, taking all hope of rescue with it.

The boy with the lance lowered his weapon and glanced over at Ellie, who felt the ends of her gathered hair settling back down after whirling around in the train’s backdraft. She froze. If he couldn’t reach Moses, would he send the lance through her? Suddenly, he kicked his horse into a gallop and took off across the landscape, until he and his paint disappeared into the early dusk.

The short boy did just the opposite, rushing to the tall one’s side with Moses right behind him. Ellie stared at Moses as if she’d never seen him before. How had he come to take charge of a situation like this, or display so much confidence in himself?

Ellie hurried toward Moses, who had his big hand pressed flat over the tall one’s chest. What would Moses do? The short boy watched, his knees bent slightly as if he was ready to spring.

The tall Indian boy tried to sit up, then let out a yell and grimaced horribly, grabbing at his shoulder. It had an odd bump that Ellie hadn’t noticed before. Moses said something that Ellie didn’t understand, and the youth lay back down, panting, his eyes screwed up tightly with pain.

Turning to look at Ellie with his dark eyes, Moses said words that chilled her to the bone. “Miss Ellie, you’ve gotta hold him tight round his chest.”

Ellie couldn’t believe she’d heard right. The thought of moving closer to these violent youths with sharp implements was the last thing she wanted. “But, I…” she stammered.

“Hold him so I can put his shoulder back to where it belongs,” Moses said. “Hold him tight, like you’ll not let him go no matter what. Even though it feels like I’m trying to yank him from you, don’ let me.”

“Why not have his friend do it?”

Moses glanced at the short boy. “For one thing, he doesn’ understand what I’m tryin’ to do, and for another thing, look at him.” Ellie realized that Moses was right. If the boy with the lance hadn’t ridden away, he might have been able to help, but not this small one. “Please, Miss Ellie, I need your help.’

Looking into Moses’s sweating face, Ellie realized that in spite of her reluctance, she needed to help him. After all, he’d come on this rescue mission because she’d begged him to. “Alright,” she said, trepidation making her voice wobble. She cleared her throat and stiffened her spine. “Show me what to do.”

Moses directed her to sit right behind the tall one. She did, folding her legs to the side and tucking her riding skirt in around her legs. “No,” Moses said. “You gotta put your limbs on either side of him.”

Ellie stared at Moses. That was positively indecent.

Glancing up at her indignant face, Moses said, “It has to be done.”

Ellie clenched her teeth in determination. Moses was right. She could do this. She would do it. Ellie divided her skirt at the split, keeping as much fabric as she could wrapped around each of her lower limbs before sliding them on either side of the tall boy. He smelled like smoke, sage, pine, and sweat. Breathing through her mouth, Ellie reached her arms around the young man’s naked upper body and hooked her fingers together over his hard, muscled chest.

“No,” Moses shook his head at the sight of Ellie’s hands. “Hold tighter.” He took the Indian’s injured arm with his big hands and gave Ellie a serious stare.

Ellie closed her eyes and imagined that she was holding Curtis. If she let go, he would die. She locked her hands together so tightly that the Indian youth let out a gasp. When Moses yanked on his arm, Ellie felt herself rocking forward. She dug her boot heels into the ground and squeezed the boy even harder. Curtis, she thought fiercely. I’m saving Curtis. I have to hold on, I have to save him.

The body in her arms trembled, much as Jesse had when he’d burned himself on the stove as a child. Linnea had directed Ellie to hold Jesse so she could put butter on his blistered skin. Jesse had hollered and sobbed, trembling in her grasp, until he’d finally cried himself into a restless sleep.

But this Indian youth, trembling in pain like her brother, kept silent. He must have pulled from some deep reserve of self control, even though she would not have faulted him for yelling against the pain.

Another jerk. This time Ellie did not move as much. Curtis, Curtis, I love you, Curtis.

The Indian pried at her fingers, but Ellie growled and held them firm.

“Miss Ellie, let go,” Moses said in his deep, soft voice.

Ellie opened her eyes to see the small boy looking ready to pounce on her. She released her fingers, surprised to discover that they were numb. The injured boy pushed himself away from her and stood, slightly hunched, beads of sweat on his forehead, rolling his arm slowly around, then stopping with a sharp flinch before he could make a complete circle. He lowered his arm and grinned at his companion.

Then he said something to Moses. Moses nodded, and the two youths disappeared into the brush. They soon broke out astride their horses, trotting away. With rising hope, Ellie watched them go. “This is our chance,” she said to Moses. “Once they’re out of sight, we can escape.” She headed toward the brush where the bay and the black had been taken.

“Too late,” Moses replied.

Ellie looked back at him, a question in her eyes. Then she followed his gaze. Her heart sank as she watched the departing warriors pull up beside four other riders approaching through the darkening landscape. Then to her dismay, they all turned and headed back toward Ellie and Moses. “It looks like they’ve got reinforcements,” she said. “Can’t we outrun them?”

“Jus’ wait,” Moses said with a strange light in his eye. Ellie couldn’t tell if it came from the setting sun or if he was losing his mind. Still, he was her best option for protection, so she moved close enough to him to hide behind his back.

“Ellie girl?”

Sudden tears sprang to Ellie’s eyes at the sound of the familiar voice. “Papa?”

Her father slid off his horse and hurried toward her in a limping run, his arms outstretched, looking thinner than she’d ever seen him.

“Papa!” Ellie yelled, running into his arms.

“Oh, Ellie, my beautiful girl, my angel light.”

“You’re alive, Papa, I knew you were!” Ellie cried, tears spilling onto her father’s tattered shirt while he held her against his chest.

Wilburn took hold of his daughter’s shoulders and pushed her away far enough to look into her eyes. “I missed you.”

Barely aware of Moses walking past them toward the other riders, Ellie replied, “I missed you too, we all did. What happened, Papa?”

“They attacked our wagon while I was playing harmonica to entertain poor Reg Owens. They killed him first, so it was blessedly quick. When Dan Gregory pulled a gun, he lost his life. I was sure I’d be next, but they took my harmonica and looked it over. Several of them tried playing it. I’ve never heard such awful sounds as the ones coming from my poor, tortured instrument. Then they pressed it up to my mouth. It was pretty plain what they wanted. I was so scared, I hardly had enough breath to blow into it, but I managed to play a tune. They laughed, then took me back to their village. I played for them every day. Just now, when the chief’s son said there was a medicine woman looking for a white man, I had to turn it over before they’d let me leave the village.”

Confused, Ellie asked, “Medicine woman?”

Her father gave her a small smile. “You’ll see. Just play the part.” Putting his arm around his daughter, Wilburn turned her to face a mounted middle aged Indian holding a pole with fluttering things on it, and the three Indian boys sitting on horses. The youth with the lance pointed his weapon at her and said something, his adolescent voice high with excitement.

To the side of them, Curtis stood next to Moses, his blue eyes fixed intently on her. “Curtis!” Ellie cried, trying to step out of her father’s embrace in order to reach him.

Squeezing her shoulders, Wilburn murmured, “Not now.”

When the middle aged Indian raised his pole, the boy with the lance fell silent.

“What’s on there?” Ellie asked with a cold stab of fear as she watched the dangles from the pole flutter feebly, like hair caught underwater.“Scalps?”

“It’s leather fringe and feathers,” Wilburn replied. “It’s a ceremonial lance.”

The older Indian’s loose black hair flowed over his shoulders, his face glowing red in the light from the setting sun. Ellie gasped when she saw a ragged scar running from halfway down his cheek up over his eye. From where the scar disappeared into his hairline, a white streak rippled down the length of his hair.

With his dark eyes fixed on Ellie, he said something she didn’t understand.

“He’s the village medicine man,” Wilburn explained.

The medicine man got off his horse in one fluid movement and walked toward Ellie and her father. “Stand firm,” Wilburn whispered, “like a wood carving.” The medicine man’s eyes never left Ellie as he got closer and closer, finally stopping in front of her and planting his pole onto the dirt, feathers and fringe fluttering. Up close, Ellie could see crow feathers fastened in the Indian’s hair on either side of his head.

Of an equal height, his dark gaze stared straight into her eyes, making her want to pull back. The sight of his scar, which appeared to be from a knife wound, looked old. Imagining it as a fresh cut was deeply disturbing, especially since the scar line slid over his eyelid, puckering the skin. Taking comfort from her father’s arm around her, Ellie held steady. Firm as a carving, she told herself.

Then she tensed as the medicine man moved his hand toward her. What was he doing? Taking hold of Wilburn’s hand, the Indian pulled it from Ellie’s shoulder. With a single command from the medicine man, Wilburn stepped away from her.

Papa! Although she yearned to move in next to her father again, Ellie didn’t dare turn her head as the medicine man made a slow circuit, her heart nearly beating itself to death against her ribs when he disappeared behind her. Catching sight of her father in her peripheral vision, she imagined herself as a carving standing solidly next to the one she’d made of Papa.

The Indian circled back in front to stare into her eyes again. When he reached up toward her head, Ellie wanted to cringe, but wouldn’t let herself. She stared back at the Indian as his fingers touched the place where her white streak grew. He ran his hand down the length of it, stopping where it was tied up in the ribbon. A sudden, sharp tug at the back of her neck made Ellie gasp and turn aside, her hair falling loose and free against her shoulders as her pink ribbon dangled from the medicine man’s fingers.

He spoke, and Wilburn translated, “He wants to know which white man you seek.”

Ellie tore her gaze from the medicine man’s dark eyes and focused on Curtis, who looked at her with eyes so full of love that she was infused with immediate courage. “I seek them both. Now that they are found, they return with me.”

Without any interpretation, the medicine man nodded. Then he tied the pink ribbon at the top of his pole, turned, walked back and mounted his horse. After one last look at Ellie, he turned and rode away, the pink ribbon fluttering among the feathers and fringe as the three boys followed him into the twilight.

Ellie ran to Curtis, who wrapped his arms around her, mending her heart and filling her with joy.

“Well handled, my daughter,” Wilburn said.

Ellie felt as if she might burst with happiness. “Mama is going to be so surprised!” she cried.

“I am more than happy to be her surprise,” Papa said with a grin.

“But I must warn you,” Ellie said, “she has a dangling thread that needs snipping.” When Wilburn looked confused, Ellie laughed. “His name is John Haun.”

Wilburn’s brow dipped. “Well, if he’s been bothering my Linnea, I’ll be sure to snip him off first thing. Our family may be growing, but he’s not the addition I would choose.”

“Growing?” Ellie asked. She turned toward Curtis, noticing for the first time that he had a bruise on his cheekbone. A bump on his head had bled onto his eyebrow and sent a trickle of red down the side of his face. “They hurt you!” she cried. “You shouldn’t have gone out alone!”

Curtis took both of her hands. “I’ve never felt better. After Moses convinced me that he’d really seen your father, I realized I couldn’t ask you to marry me until I’d gotten his permission. So I had to find him. He said that if it is your wish, he gives his blessing on our marriage.”

Curtis lowered himself to one knee and looked up at Ellie. “I don’t know that you could match my feelings, but I must tell you that I love you, Ellie Ransom.”

Ellie had dreamed of this moment. She wanted to be with Curtis always, and it thrilled her to hear him say that he felt the same way. Eyes blurred by tears of joy, she heard him say, “Will you do me the great honor of marrying me?”

“Yes!” Ellie cried. “Now stand up.”

Ellie embraced Curtis, and he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. ”Perhaps we can buy those train tickets once we’re man and wife, and go somewhere you’ve never been before,” Curtis said into Ellie’s ear.

Ellie turned to smile at her father. “Do you really like him, Papa?”

“He brought me back to you.” Wilburn reached into his pants pocket, pulled out a carving, and held up the figure of a woman in a swirling skirt. “And now I can get back to my real Linnea, instead of just having this likeness I carved of her.”

Ellie reached into her own pocket and pulled out her carving. “Look what I have, Papa.”

Wilburn took hold of the tall, slender man with one foot raised in a dancing pose. He held the figure next to the one of the woman he’d made with the swirling skirt. They were as perfectly proportioned as if they had been carved by the same hand. Still clutching the carvings, Wilburn said, “These will forever dance side by side on the mantlepiece at home.”

“Let’s go, then,” Ellie said.

“Come on, Moses,” Curtis said. “Rambling awaits us.”

“I don’ think so,” Moses said.

Surprise showed plain on Curtis’s face. “What?”

“I’m a free man now. I choose to go back to Sunning Sparrow. I like my life as a buffalo man.”

A slow smile spread across Curtis’s face. “Well, then, by all means, you should live the life you choose. Maybe you’ll come into town once in awhile for a visit.”

Moses grinned. “I would like that. I’m thinking that Sunning Sparrow has some things that you could maybe sell to some of those Eastern or Europe folks.”

“That’s a fine idea.” Curtis and Moses shook hands.

Ellie grabbed Moses’s hand in both of hers. “You’re invited to our wedding, you know. You and Sunning Sparrow both.”

“That’s mighty kind,” Moses said.

Then Moses got on his horse and headed off toward the hills in the strange light between sunset and a nearly full moon, while Wilburn and Curtis rode on either side of Ellie as the three of them turned their horses toward Rambling.

 

THE END

 

 

If you enjoyed “Carved in Love,” please leave your review on AMAZON. Thank you! Want more? Read on for a peek into the second story in the “Tracks of the Heart” series.

 

“Escape to Love”

 

By Savanna Sage

 

Chapter 1

 

Bonny turned away from the street leading to Rebecca’s Millinery Store. Her mission was to pick up Gran’s new hat. With two hours before the store closed, she headed for the railroad station instead, with anticipation more suited to a lad in knee pants than a twenty-one year old Bostonian woman.

She arrived just as a mighty engine trailing a great plume of steam rolled in, the scent of coal smoke and hot steam settling over the station. Bonny eagerly watched workers scurry about, unloading mysterious crates from freight cars. Rumbling cart wheels mingled with shouts of workers as passengers, clutching their luggage, hurried away from the train. Others were greeted by people waiting for them on the platform, their excited chatter indistinct in the noise of the station. Bonny wondered how far the travelers had gone and what great sights they had seen. As she moved among the crowd, she wondered if she would ever get the chance to go somewhere else and return home to tell Gran about it.

People milled about the station, some readying new freight to load, others preparing to board. Bonny moved to the end of the platform closest to the livestock yard to get out of the way. Shading her eyes beneath the brim of her straw hat, Bonny scanned the stock yard and was surprised to see Alex walking toward the corrals. Even though he was moving away from her, his handsome profile was plain to see as he engaged in animated conversation with a man carrying a suitcase.

As she studied the pair, Bonny noticed that the main difference between them was that the stranger wore a western hat with a shorter crown and wider brim than Alex’s top hat. Otherwise, they were of similar body build and height. She wondered if this man could be Alex’s brother.

Suddenly struck with the realization that she didn’t know if Alex even had a brother, Bonny decided it would be a good idea to try and meet one of Alex’s relatives, since Gran was apparently in favor of Bonny becoming Alex’s wife.

When she first met Alex, Bonny couldn’t help wondering why Uncle Edwin had bothered convincing such a handsome man to take her off his hands. She could not recall ever receiving a single kind word from Uncle Edwin. Maybe he meant for her to feel plain next to Alex, so strikingly handsome with his smooth black hair and soft skin. All she had to offer in return were unexceptional brown eyes with matching brown hair. She wasn’t even tall, but merely stood at average height.

When Alex sensed her insecurities, he assured Bonny that she was a perfect complement to him. Whether that meant he thought they looked good strolling together, or whether he thought her plainness offered a contrast to his good looks, didn’t matter. She simply appreciated that he cared enough to offer her any kind words.

When Bonny saw the men stop at a wooden corral fence where Alex untied a dark brown horse, she raised her gloved hand to wave at him. He didn’t respond, so she decided to go closer. As she moved through the people and carts cutting between the station and the corrals, Bonny momentarily lost sight of Alex and his companion. When she saw them again, the stranger shook his head, then turned and walked away. She stopped, her gaze riveted on Alex as he stared after the man, his handsome face twisted into a look of such fury that Bonny scarcely recognized him.

Then Alex turned back to the horse and yanked its rope into a secure knot around the fence so it couldn’t get away. Picking up a rawhide lariat coiled over a post, he beat the animal with one end of it, his vicious strikes delivered from the full length of his long arm. The horse whinnied in pain and jerked backward, but he couldn’t escape the blows on its shoulders and neck.

Frozen with horror, Bonny’s gaze was riveted on the pitiful sight. Alex suddenly stopped and spun around, his eyes darting as if checking to see if he was being watched. When his gaze fell on Bonny, he stood as still as stone. Then he lowered his head, like a bull ready to charge.

Bonny turned and ran from Alex as if he had actually changed into a mad bull intent on trampling her into nothingness. She didn’t think about where she was going, didn’t even notice the people around her until she ran right into someone.

Eyes filling with tears, she wasn’t sure she could trust her voice to make an apology. Big hands cupped her elbows, and a deep voice asked, “Are you alright, ma’am? You’d best sit down for a bit.” The next thing she knew, she was collapsing onto a suitcase. “If you put your head in your lap, it usually helps the dizziness,” the voice said.

Grateful for the stranger’s kindness, Bonny blinked the tears from her eyes and wiped them from her cheeks with the back of her glove. Then she looked up into the handsome face of the man who knelt at her side trying to give her comfort. He had a square jaw, perfectly angled nose, and smoldering eyes so dark that she could nearly see her reflection in them. When he lifted off his wide brimmed hat, she recognized him as Alex’s companion at the corrals. “You!” she said.

“I’m Trace Masters, ma’am.” he replied.

Fresh tears blurred her vision. Trace Masters knew Alex. Did he beat horses too? Confused and embarrassed, wishing he hadn’t seen her crying, she jumped up from his suitcase and stumbled away, intent on losing herself in the crowd.

 

End of Chapter

 

Check out all the “Tracks of the Heart” series books:

Book One: Carved in Love

Book Two: Escape to Love

Book Three: Two Hearts for One

 

 

About the Author:

Savanna Sage has ancestors who lived in the Old West and experienced their own heart-tugging true-life love stories. As a child, Savanna found herself staring out the window at any old pioneer house her parents happened to drive by. Even with a broken roof or sagging porch, Savanna found herself wondering who built it, who lived there, what their lives were like, and why they left.

For a while, Savanna used a wringer washer similar to her grandmother’s. When their well went dry for a week, she and her husband hauled water and bathed their small sons in a big kitchen bowl. While she appreciates the skills of surviving without modern conveniences, she readily admits to preferring the use of harnessed electricity, hot running water, and will choose a flush toilet over an outhouse any day.

Her incurable curiosity means that she spends many happy hours researching about days gone by while writing stories from the heart.

 

If you enjoyed “Carved in Love,” please leave your review on AMAZON, and be sure to check out the next books in the “Tracks of the Heart” series. Visit savannasage.com for titles and release dates. While there, go ahead and sign up for Savanna’s newsletter to keep you updated on new, heartwarming romances.

 

You are invited to like Savanna’s Facebook page at: [+ Savanna Sage – Author+]

 

Do you have a Western heart? Then the Pioneer Hearts Facebook group, where writers and fans of westerns meet to talk about books, cowboys, and romance, just might be for you! You won’t know until you saddle up and visit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/pioneerhearts/

 

Author’s Note: Thank you for reading! I have taken author’s license with some historical elements in order to facilitate telling the story in a more fast-paced, entertaining fashion. It is my hope that you consider suspending any reader’s disbelief in order to enjoy your ride through these entertaining historical fiction pages of warm, wonderful romance.

Savanna Sage.

 

77


Carved in Love

Everyone thinks Ellie’s father was killed by Indians, but she doesn’t believe it. In fact, she would go looking if she knew how to find him. When she meets handsome Curtis Locken and his mysterious friend, Moses, she not only feels stirrings of love, but rising hope that she might find her father at last. Southerner Curtis Locken moved west to escape a relationship that went terribly wrong. When he sees a captivating young woman fall into the path of a moving train, he manages to pull her to safety. Intrigued not only by her beauty but by her individuality and spunk, he is determined to see her again. Can Curtis overcome his troubled past and learn to love again? Will Ellie’s powerful desire to bring her father home endanger her prospect of love?

  • Author: Savanna Sage
  • Published: 2016-10-26 03:50:13
  • Words: 40606
Carved in Love Carved in Love