About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Daddy wouldn't make it through another bitter-cold night. Susanna wasn't even sure how she'd managed not to freeze to death on this Colorado mountainside over the past ten or so hours. Maybe her anger had kept her alive, a real rage like some folks back home in Georgia still felt toward the North and all Yankees. For the first time in all her nineteen years, she understood firsthand how they felt.
The only trouble was that she had no idea whom to hate. Still, if God brought them out of this predicament, she would see to it that justice was meted out on whoever robbed Daddy, beat him almost to death and left him to die amid their scattered belongings. If Susanna hadn't been over the hill fetching water for their supper, she had no doubt those men would have done their worst to her, as well. Always the protector, Daddy had managed to tell her that when the villains had demanded to know who owned the female fripperies in the wagon, he'd told them his wife had been buried on the trail. Such a lie must have cost her truthful father dearly, but it had saved her from unknown horrors.
She placed a small log on the fire and used a poker to stir the flames she had somehow kept alive throughout the night. The sun had just begun to shed some light on La Veta Pass, so the day should soon warm up enough for her to make plans about how to get out of this mess. Daddy's fever didn't seem too high. Or maybe the cold just made his clammy skin seem cooler. No matter. She had to find a way to get them down into the San Luis Valley to a ranch house or town. One thing was sure. His silver prospecting would have to wait until he recovered.
A familiar ache smote Susanna's heart, but she quickly dismissed it. No use reminding herself or Daddy that if they hadn't left Georgia, they wouldn't be in this fix now. Oh, how she longed for her safe, comfortable home back in Marietta. All she had ever wanted was to marry a good Christian gentleman and raise a family in the hometown she loved so much, just as her parents had. Many of her friends had already married. Some had children. She couldn't think of a more satisfying life. But before Mama died last autumn, she'd made Susanna promise to take care of Daddy. She didn't regret her promise, but she was fairly certain Mama never dreamed he'd want to go prospecting out West. She'd had no choice but to pack up and go with him, deferring her own dreams for his and leaving her future to the Lord. After last night's attack, surely she would have no trouble convincing Daddy to return to their safe, happy life in Marietta.
"Belle." His raspy voice cut into Susanna's thoughts.
"No, dearest." She swallowed the lump in her throat. Several times in the night, he'd cried out for Mama. "It's me, Susanna."
"Ah, yes. Of course." Daddy's eyes cleared and seemed to focus on her. Then he grimaced in pain and clenched his teeth. After a few moments of clutching his ribs and writhing, during which Susanna dabbed his fevered forehead with a cloth, he shuddered as if to shove away his pain. "Young lady, have you made my morning coffee yet?"
His gruff, teasing tone would have encouraged her if she didn't know the terrible extent of his injuries. The thieving monsters who had attacked him seemed not to have left an inch of his body unbeaten. She knew he had some broken bones, yet he was being brave for her, as he always was. Now she must somehow be brave for him.
"Coffee, is it? I guess I could manage that." She tucked the woolen blankets around him, then gathered her rifle and bucket. "I'll get some water and be back before you can whistle a chorus of 'Dixie.'" She waited a moment for one of his quipped responses, but his eyes were closed and his breathing labored. Please, Lord, watch over him.
Trudging up the small, tree-covered rise, Susanna paused to stretch and shake off the stiffness that had crept into her limbs while she'd slept on the cold ground beside Daddy with only a few blankets for cover. She hadn't been able to lift him into the prairie schooner, and she couldn't leave him alone outside.
The thieves hadn't simply stolen their horses, her favorite cast-iron pot and her silver hairbrush; they'd slashed the bedding and dumped out their flour and corn-meal in search of hidden money. Still, they'd found only the paper bills Daddy had kept in his wallet for just such encounters. Even though they'd destroyed just about everything in the wagon, the secret compartment below its floorboards remained secure, as did the gold coins sewn into her skirt. But she'd trade all that gold to be sure Daddy would survive his injuries.
Once over the small hill, she made her way down the shadowed slope to the snowy banks of the rushing creek. Imagine that, snow in June. Back home in Marietta, she reckoned folks were already feeling the summer heat.
Resting her rifle against an aspen, she anchored herself by gripping a budding green branch with one leather-gloved hand, then dipped the metal pail into the surging waters with the other. It filled in seconds, and she hoisted it back to the bank with little effort, snatched up her rifle and began her trek back to the campsite.
What would Mama think of her newfound strength, her growing muscles? Mama had always said that a lady should never be too strong or too capable when it came to physical labors. Such work was for men and servants. But these past months of crossing mountains, rivers and plains had put Susanna through trials harder than any Mama had ever faced.
The moment she thought it, she changed her mind. After all, when those wicked Yankees had gone and burned down the plantation house, Mama had risked her own life to save Susanna and her brother, Edward, Jr. After the war, she'd helped Daddy and Edward build a dry-goods business in Marietta. She'd become a respected society maven, greatly beloved because of her charitable works. Surely, all of that had been harder than walking across America as a pioneer, even considering the rattlesnakes and coyotes Susanna had encountered.
She sniffed back tears. Oh, how she missed Mama. But Mama always said dwelling on the past wouldn't help. That was how she'd managed to go on after the war. Susanna would honor her memory by having that same cheerful attitude. Surely, after Daddy got his fill of searching for silver, he would take her back home to Marietta. But he would have to recover from his beating first. She forced down the fear and doubts that assailed her. Daddy would recover. She would take care of him, as she'd promised Mama.
She came over the hill, and her heart seemed to stop at the sight of a man kneeling over Daddy. Had the thieves come back to make sure he was dead? She set down her pail and lifted her rifle.
"Put your hands up and move away from him." Her voice wavered, and fear hammered in her chest, so she leaned against the trunk of a giant evergreen to steady herself. "Do it now, mister, so I don't have to shoot you." She'd shot a coyote on the trail, but faced with killing a person, she wasn't sure she could do it. But this villain didn't have to know about her doubts.
Hands lifted, he stiffened and rose to his feet, turning slowly to face her. Lord, have mercy, how could a murdering thief be so well put together? Maybe twenty-three years old, he was tall and muscular and wore a broad-brimmed hat tilted back to reveal a tanned, cleanshaven complexion and pleasing featuresthe kind of face that always attracted the ladies and weakened their good sense. But Mama hadn't raised a fool for a daughter. Even as Susanna's knees threatened to buckle, she gritted her teeth and considered what to do next, sparing a glance at Daddy before glaring again at the stranger. If he went for that gun at his side, would she be able to shoot him first?
"Put your gun down, daughter." Daddy croaked out a laugh and paid for it with a painful grimace. "This gentleman has come to help."
Nathaniel Northam wanted to laugh, but with that Winchester cocked and pointed at him, he didn't dare make the lady mad. My, she was a cute little thing, all bundled up in a man's bulky winter coat over her brown wool dress with blond curls peeking out from her straw bonnet. That turned-up nose just about couldn't get any higher, or those puckered lips look any more prim and prissy in her brave attempt to appear menacing. The gal had spunk, that was certain. Fortunately, the old man on the ground spoke out before she took that spunk too far and shot Nate.
Should he lift his hat in greeting or stay frozen with hands uplifted until her father's words got through to her? Lord, help me now. The Colonel will kill me if I get myself shot before I bring Mother's anniversary present home, not to mention my death would ruin that big anniversary shindig she's planning.
"To help?" The girl blinked those big blue eyesat least they looked blue. He couldn't quite tell with her standing up there on that shady rise. To his relief, she lowered the gun, and those puckered lips spread into a pretty smile. "Oh, thank the Lord." Before he could offer to help, she hefted her bucket and hurried down the slope. "You can't imagine how I prayed all night long that the Lord would send help." She swept past him. "And here he is." She set down her bucket with a small splash and knelt beside the old man. "Oh, Daddy, it's going to be all right now. Help has come." She didn't seem to notice the absurdity of her own words.
Daddy? Once again, Nate withheld a grin. That genteel drawl in both of their voices and her way of addressing her father marked them as Southerners, as sure as the sun did shine. Oddly, a funny little tickle in his chest gave evidence that he found everything about the young lady entirely appealing, at least at first glance. Time would tell if there was more to her than beauty and spunk. That was, if they had more time together. Seeing the state her father was in, Nate was pretty certain they would. He'd never go off and leave a wounded man in the wilderness, not when he had the means to help.
"Ma'am?" He put his hands down but didn't doff his hat because she was facing her father and the gesture would be meaningless. "Maybe we ought to get your father up off the ground."
She looked up at him as if he were a two-headed heifer. Then her eyes widened with understanding. "Oh, mercy, yes. Of course."
"Zack." Nate called to his companion. "Get over here and help me."
The short, wiry cowhand jumped down from their low, canvas-covered wagon, secured their lead horses and hurried to Nate's side. "Yeah, boss?" Zack's gray hair stuck out in spikes from beneath his hat, and Nate wished he'd made the scruffy hand clean up a bit more before they started out this morning. But then he hadn't known they'd meet a lady on the trail.
"Let's get this man into his wagon." He wouldn't ask the young miss why she hadn't moved her father there, for it was obvious a little gal like her wouldn't be able to lift him, and the man was in no condition to move himself. But at least he was resting close enough to the brown prairie schooner for it to shield him from the wind, and he had plenty of blankets around him. "Hang on a minute. Let me check inside."
Moving aside the once-white canvas covering, he struggled to calm a belly roiling with anger over what he saw. Just about everything had been destroyed, from the smashed food crocks to the shattered water barrels to the broken trunks. Only a few tools and hardware remained hanging on the outside of the wagon box. Obviously, the thieves had been searching for money and no doubt had left this little family of homesteaders penniless. A strong sense of protectiveness swept through Nate. God had sent him here and, like the Good Samaritan of Scripture, he would not refuse the assignment. If the Colonel got mad, Nate would just have to deal with him later.
He squatted beside the girl, his shoulder brushing hers, and a tiny tremor shot through him. He clamped down on such brutish sensations, which dishonored his mother and sister and all ladies. "Sir, if you'll let me, I'll divide my team, and we'll pull your wagon down to the hotel in Alamosa. They can help you there. Would that be all right?"
He'd offer to take them to Fort Garland just down the road, but a Southerner probably wouldn't like to recuperate among the Buffalo Soldiers stationed there, those soldiers being black and some of them former slaves. Nate ignored the pinch in his conscience suggesting his real motivation was to get better acquainted with this young lady.
"Obliged," the man muttered, giving him a curt nod, but Nate took no offense. Clearly, the old fellow was in pain, and all of his responses would be brief.
"I'm Nate Northam, and this is Zack Wilson." He tilted his head toward his cowhand.
The old man's eyes widened, and his bruised jaw dropped. "Northam, you say?"
"Yessir." Nate stood up. "You know the name?" His father, referred to as the Colonel even by his friends and some of his family, had a powerful reputation from the War Between the States. Maybe this man had met him on some battlefield.
He shook his head and grimaced, almost folding into himself. "No. No. Nothing." He tried to extend his right hand, but it fell to his side. "Anders. Edward Anders."
"Well, Mr. Anders" Nate reached down and patted the limp hand "you just give Zack and me a few minutes, and we'll get things all fixed up." Nate didn't know how he managed to say all that without choking on the emotions welling up inside, especially with Miss Anders staring up at him as if he was some kind of hero. My, a man could get caught up in those blue eyes and that sweet smile. Those golden curls only added to her appeal. Nate cleared his throat and turned back to deal with the wagon.
Lord, what have You got me into this time?
Susanna forced her eyes away from Mr. Northam to focus on Daddy, her stomach twisting over his lie. This was so unlike Daddy. She understood why it wouldn't be wise to let these strangers know they had money, but his insistence that they make this trip across the country under an assumed name continued to disturb her. And although Daddy had denied it, she could tell the man's last name meant something to him. She wouldn't press him to tell her, at least not until they were alone and maybe when he felt better.
"Daughter, where's my coffee?" The artificial gruffness in his tone further encouraged Susanna. The earlier hopelessness he hadn't quite been able to hide seemed to have disappeared with the arrival of these good men, that and the bright sun now warming the campsite.