About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
June 2, 1871
In the dazzling sunshine, Rachel Woolsey stood on the deck of the riverboat, gazing at her new home, its wharf and huddle of rustic buildings. After all the lonely miles, she'd accomplished her journey. Relief flooded her when she recognized her cousin Noah standing near the dock, his wife and children at his side.
But she stiffened herself against this warm, weakening rush. She didn't want to dissolve in tears at the sight of family. She would make a life for herself here, fulfill her ambition of independence, start her own business, own a home-no matter what anyone said.
Her empty stomach churning, she smoothed her skirt, calming herself outwardly, and prayed silently for the strength to accomplish all she hoped. With God's help, I will. Otherwise why did I leave my father's house in Pennsylvania?
Finally, at the rear, the paddle wheel stilled, dripping and running with water. Porters carried her luggage onto shore where she tipped them and turned to her cousin. When she told him all her unusual-for a woman-plans, would he be a help or hindrance?
Holding his daughter, Noah enveloped her in a one-armed embrace. "Cousin Rachel!"
The intensity in his joyful welcome wrapped itself around her like a warm blanket and went straight to her lonesome heart. "Cousin!" She could say no more without tears.
Then he released her and his pretty blonde wife handed their little son to him and hugged her close. "We're so happy you have come. It's good to have family near."
Rachel sensed a breath of hesitation in Sunny's welcome. And Rachel guessed it must be because she knew of Sunny's unhappy past. How could she let Sunny know she would never, never reveal what she knew? She wouldn't tell anyone here that before marrying Noah, Sunny had borne a child out of wedlock.
"I'm so happy, Cousin Sunny," she said with heartfelt sincerity. "I'm so happy thee and Noah look good together."
And they did. The two children looked happy and well fed. Noah looked healed, content and Sunny touched his arm with obvious affection. Then tears did come.
Maybe this place would be good for her, too. She realized that she did feel welcome, more than in her stepmother's home where she'd been an unpaid servant instead of a beloved daughter. She tried to shake off the bittering thought.
At sounds behind Rachel, Noah looked up and frowned. Speaking past her, he asked sharply, "What are you men doing?"
"The captain say bring this man on shore to the doctor," the black porter said.
Rachel swung around and saw that two porters were carrying an unconscious man, one holding his shoulders and one his ankles. A third porter followed with what looked like a bulging soldier's knapsack.
"We don't have a doctor here," Sunny said, sounding worried.
"Well, then we suppose to leave him anyway," the porter said, appearing abashed. "We got no one to nurse or doctor him and his fare run out two stops south."
Rachel's sense of right balked. "So thee's just going to abandon him?"
The porters looked ashamed, helpless. "That's what the captain order us to do."
Rachel struggled with herself. She couldn't take out her umbrage on these innocent men. She would tell the captain what she thought-
The boat whistle squealed. The porters gently laid down the shabby man and his travel-worn knapsack and then hustled onto the boat, which was already being cast free.
Within moments the boat was far from shore, heading north, the paddle wheel turning again. Rachel fumed at the departing craft as she dropped to her knees beside the man.
Thin, with a new beard and shaggy chestnut hair, he appeared around Noah's age, in his thirties, and would have been handsome if not so haggard looking. Drawn to help him, Rachel touched his perspiring forehead. Anxiety prodded her. "He's burning up, Noah."
Her cousin knelt on the man's other side. "We can't leave him."
"Of course we can't," Sunny agreed, holding her little girl back from going to her father.
Rachel rose with new purpose. "I'll help thee carry him, Noah." She bent and lifted the man's ankles and Noah quickly grasped his shoulders. They carried him to the wagon and managed to arrange him on a blanket Sunny kept under the wagon seat. Rachel should have had a harder time carrying a man's weight, but he must have lost pounds already, not a good sign.
Some of the shopkeepers and customers had come out to watch and a few helped wedge Rachel's luggage on the other side of the wagon bed along with the man's knapsack. They kept a safe distance from the feverish, unconscious man, evidently fearing contagion.
A man whom Sunny addressed as Mr. Ashford said, "He doesn't look good. Be sure you don't catch this from him."
Rachel understood this sentiment, but didn't let it sway her. Her father hadn't raised a coward.
Noah voiced what she was thinking, "We'll do what we can for him. It's shameful to just drop a man off to die."
"Irresponsible," Ashford agreed, though he backed away. "But not every river man is to be trusted."
Rachel couldn't decide if the man was speaking of the captain who'd abandoned the man or warning them that this man might do them harm-if he lived. Indignation stirred within her.
Noah helped Rachel up onto the wagon bench to sit beside Sunny. Rachel accepted Sunny's sweet little girl to sit on her lap. Noah turned the wagon and headed them home.
Rachel's attention was torn between the beautiful thick forest they drove into and the man moaning softly behind her. As they rolled into and over each rut and bump, she hurt for him. After traveling alone for weeks, she was moved by the man's plight. If she had become sick, would this have happened to her? "What does thee think he might be ill with?" she asked Sunny.
"I don't know. I have some skill in nursing the sick, but he might be.. " Sunny's voice faltered.
Beyond our help, Rachel finished silently. A pall hung over them and the miles to Noah's homestead crawled by. Rachel mentally went over the medicines she'd brought with her and where they were packed. She questioned Sunny and found that her stock of medicines was meager, too.
Rachel closed her eyes, praying for this stranger, for all traveling strangers. The man's dire situation overlaid her joy at arriving here. Pepin was her new beginning. Would it be this man's ending?
Brennan Merriday groaned and the sound wakened him. He heard footsteps. Someone knelt beside him. A cool hand touched his brow. "I have broth and medicine. Open thy mouth, please." A woman's voice.
His every joint ached, excruciating. His body burned with fever. He couldn't speak, didn't have the strength to shake his head no. A spoon touched his lips. The only act he could manage was letting his mouth fall open. Warm, salty broth moistened his dry throat. Then something bitter. And then more broth. He let it flow into his mouth and swallowed.
He moaned, trying to lift his eyelids. Couldn't. Swallowed. He began to drift again. A face flickered in his mind-Lorena's oval face, beautiful as ever with black ringlets around it, a painful memory that lanced his heart. He groaned again.
The same firm voice summoned him back. "A few more mouthfuls, that's all I ask."
The gentle words fell soft on his ears. He made the effort to swallow again. Again. And then he felt himself slipping away.
Half asleep, Rachel sat in the rocking chair, the fire very low on the hearth, keeping a small pot of chicken broth warm. Every time the stranger surfaced, she spooned as much into him as she could, along with willow bark tea for his fever. She was trying to keep him alive till his fever broke.
Still he looked emaciated and beneath his eyes dark patches showed signs of his decline. Would she succeed? Or would they bury him without a name? The thought lowered her spirits.
She had cared for him around the clock for nearly a week. Weariness had seeped in as deep as her bones, but her overall worry, that they might bury this man never knowing his name, pressed in on her more. Noah had gone through the man's knapsack but had found nothing marked with a name.
Even sick, the stranger beckoned. Something about him drew her-more than merely the handsome face obscured by a wild, newly grown beard and mustache and the ravages of the fever. He looked lost somehow. Would he remain a mystery? Who was he? Why had he boarded the same riverboat as she? Was some woman pacing, worrying about him?
She'd thought she would quickly put her plans for her business into motion. But once again the needs of others took precedence. Just a little longer. I don't begrudge helping this man, Father. Her chin lowered and she slipped into that fuzzy world of half sleep.
A loud groan woke her fully. Pushing away the dregs of a dream about home, she sat up straighter and looked down. In the light from the hearth, she saw that the stranger was awake. And this time he opened his eyes. She quickly moved into her routine. She knelt by his pallet and felt his forehead. She pressed her hand there again. Was she imagining that he seemed cooler?
With the top of her wrist, she touched her own forehead and then his. She stared down into his dull eyes. "The fever has finally broken." Cold relief coursed through her.
The man tried to talk, his dry lips stuck together.
She held up a hand. "I'll get the broth." Soon she spooned more into his mouth. This time he didn't fall asleep while she was feeding him. His dark eyes followed her and for the first time she knew he was seeing her. This made her uncomfortable, being so close to a man, a stranger, performing an intimate task for him. Finally, the bowl was empty. "More?"
His head shook yes fractionally.
She quickly fetched more and fed him a second bowl, very aware of her disheveled appearance- though in his state he wouldn't have noticed even crossed eyes. And their being very much alone, even though Noah and Sunny slept in the next room, affected her oddly, too.
When done drinking, he closed his eyes and drew in a long breath. "How long have I been delirious?" A Southern accent slurred the words.
"Nearly a week."
"Where am I?" His voice sounded rusty, forced. His I sounded like Ah.
"In the home of my cousin Noah Whitmore in Pepin, Wisconsin."
His face screwed up as if the news were unwelcome. Then it relaxed as if he'd given up some struggle.
He might still die. She must know who he was. She couldn't explain the urgency, but she couldn't deny it.
"What is thy name?"
His eyelids fluttered open. He had the thickest dark lashes she'd ever seen on a man. She held back a finger that errantly wanted to stroke their lush upward curve. "I'm Brennan Merriday."
She smiled down at him, relieved.
"What's your name, miss?"
"I am Rachel Woolsey," she said.
"Rachel," he murmured, rolling her name around his tongue. "You're a good woman, Miss Rachel."
Words of praise, so rare, warmed her with satisfaction.
She thought again of a woman, looking for him, a hitch in her breath. "Does thee have family we can contact?"
The way he said the word saddened her. She'd been without family since her mother died and her father had remarried.
She touched his forehead again, more to connect with him than out of necessity. Was her compassion carrying her off to more than it should?
"Miss Rachel," he repeated. Then he closed his eyes.
She didn't think he had fallen back to sleep. He'd closed his eyes to shut her out. Was it her question that prompted this or was he too weak to talk further? Though his fever had broken, he would need careful nursing before he recovered fully. She sighed long, not letting herself dwell on her own plans, already much delayed.
A man's life was worth more than her business. And this man hadn't chosen to be sick. She pulled the blanket up around his neck and smoothed it. Why had this desire to touch him come?
Finally she pushed herself up onto her feet before she gave in to temptation and did something like touch those thick lashes and embarrassed herself.
She settled back into the rocking chair with her feet on a three-legged stool. She pulled the shawl up onto her shoulders like a blanket and almost fell asleep. One thought lingered-the man did not seem very happy to wake from a fever. That could be due to his weakness. But from his few words, she didn't think so. The lonely recognized the lonely.
Brennan lay on the pallet, still aching, feeling as flat as a blank sheet of foolscap. For the first time, he was aware of what was going on around him. The family who lived in this roomy log cabin had just risen and was getting ready to start its day. He hadn't been this close to such a family for a long time-by choice. Too painful for him.
A tall husband sat at the table, bouncing a little girl on one knee and a baby on the other, saying nursery rhymes and teasing them. The children giggled; the sound made him feel forlorn. A pretty wife in a fresh white apron was tending the fire and making breakfast. Bacon sizzled in a pan, whetting Brennan's once-dormant appetite. How long before he could get away from this homey place that reminded him too much of what he'd lost a decade ago? When he reached Canada, maybe then he could forget. When would he be able to travel again?
The woman who'd nursed him what was her name? His wooly mind groped around, seeking it. Miss Rachel, that was it. She still slept in a rocking chair near him. He could see only the side of her face since her head had fallen against the high back of the chair. Light golden freckles dotted her nose. Straight, light brown hair had slipped from a bun, unfurling around her cheek and nape. From what he could see, she was not blatantly pretty but not homely either. There was something about her, an innocence that frightened him for her.
The smell of bacon insisted on his full attention. He opened his eyes wider and turned his head. His stomach rumbled loudly.
As they heard it, both the husband and wife turned to him. Miss Rachel's eyes popped open. "Thee is awake?"
He nodded, his mouth too dry to speak. Thee? Quakers to boot?
"I'll get you a cup of coffee," the wife said.
Miss Rachel stretched gracefully and fully like a cat awakening from a nap and rose from the rocking chair, throwing off a shawl, revealing a trim figure in a plain dark dress. She knelt beside him and tested his forehead. "No fever." She beamed.
He gazed up into the largest gray eyes he'd ever seen. They were serene, making him feel his disreputable appearance. Yet her gaze wouldn't release him. He resisted. I'm just weak, that's all.
The husband walked over and looked down. "Thank God. You had us worried."
At the mention of God, Brennan felt the familiar tightening. God's notice was not something he wanted. The wife handed Miss Rachel a steaming mug of what smelled like fresh-brewed coffee. She lifted his head and shoulders. Lilac scent floated in the air.
"I can sit up," he protested, forcing out the words in a burst through cracked lips. Yet when he tried, he found that he could not sit up, his bones as soft as boiled noodles.
"Thy strength will return," Miss Rachel said, nudging his lips with the mug rim.
He opened his mouth to insist that he'd be up before the day was out. But instead he let the strong, hot, creamy coffee flow in. His thirst sprang to life and he drank till the mug was empty. Then he inhaled, exhausted by the act and hating that. Everyone stared down at him, pity in their eyes.
The old bitterness reared. Enjoyin' the show? he nearly snarled. His heart beat fast at the inappropriate fury that coursed through him. These innocent people didn't deserve the sharp edge of his rough tongue.
"You'll feel better," the wife said, "when you've been able to eat more and get your strength back."
"How did I end up here?" he asked, the thought suddenly occurring to him. Hadn't he been on a riverboat?
"The captain put you off the same boat I arrived on," Miss Rachel replied, sounding indignant.