Read An Outlaw's Christmas Online

Authors: Linda Lael Miller

Tags: #Romance, #Western, #Fiction

An Outlaw's Christmas (4 page)

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
3.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Piper’s heart went out to him. As untenable as
her
situation was, Dara Rose needed Clay right now, and so did the children. Edrina and Harriet, though uncommonly precocious, were still quite small, and they couldn’t be expected to know what to do if their mother went into labor.

“Go home, Clay,” she said gently. “Give Dara Rose my best regards. Edrina and Harriet, too.”

Clay’s expression was even more serious now, and he looked at her for a long time before giving a reluctant nod and promising, “I’ll come back for Sawyer as soon as Doc decides he can travel. I appreciate this, Piper. I wouldn’t ask it of you, but—”

“I understand,” she said, when words failed him again. And she
did
understand. Clay and Sawyer, like Piper and Dara Rose, were first cousins, the next best thing to siblings, and the bond was strong between them.

The snow came down harder and then harder still, and Doc Howard finished his coffee, collected his bag and took one more look at Sawyer, then headed out, after assuring Piper that he’d return before day’s end and asking what he ought to bring back.

Blankets, she’d said, flustered, and kerosene, and whatever medicine the patient might need.

Clay attended to Sawyer’s horse, said goodbye, and left for the ranch.

Watching him disappear into a spinning vortex of white, Piper felt a lump rise in her throat.

Once again, she was alone, except for Sawyer McKettrick and he, of course, was a hindrance, not a help.

True to his word, Doc was back within the hour, despite the increasingly bad weather, bringing a fresh supply of laudanum, a jug of kerosene, more carbolic acid and several warm blankets, wrapped in oilcloth so they’d stay dry.

He examined Sawyer again—reporting that he was still sleeping but that his heartbeat was stronger than before and he seemed to be breathing more easily—gave Piper a few instructions, and quickly left again, because nightfall would be coming on soon, making the ordinarily short journey home even more difficult than it already was.

Piper thanked him, asked him to give Eloise and Madeline her best, and watched through the front window until he and his mule were gone from sight.

Then, feeling more alone than she ever had, she got busy.

She washed down the already clean blackboard.

She dusted every surface in the schoolroom and refilled the kerosene lamp.

She drank more coffee and fed more wood into the stove.

Before he’d gone, Clay had assured her that Sawyer’s horse would be fine until morning, which meant she could stay inside, where it was comparatively warm, so that was
one
less worry, anyhow. Gaps between the floorboards let in some of the cold, but that couldn’t be helped. Using the spare blankets Doc had brought, she made a bed on the floor, close to the stove and hoped all the mice were hibernating.

She lit the kerosene lamp as the room darkened, and tried to cheer herself up by imagining the Christmas tree, still in its pail of water and leaning against the far wall, glowing with bright decorations. She took comfort in its green branches and faintly piney scent and thought, with a smile, of the recitations her students were memorizing for the school program.

Christmas Eve, just ten days away, fell on a Friday that year, so school would be in session until noon—weather permitting—and the recital would be presented soon after. After the poems and skits, everyone would sing carols. The owner of the mercantile had promised to donate oranges and peppermint sticks for the children, and the parents would bring pies and cookies and cakes.

This gathering represented all the Christmas some of the children would have, and all thirteen of them were looking forward to the celebration.

She moved, quiet as a wraith, to the window, and glumness settled over her spirit as she looked out.

And still the snow fell in abundance, unrelenting.

* * *

I
T
WAS
THE
pain that finally roused him.

Sawyer came to the surface of consciousness with a fierce jolt, feeling as though he’d been speared through his left shoulder.

His stomach lurched, and for a moment he was out there on that snowy street again, unable to see his assailant, reaching in vain for his .45.

He went deliberately still—not only was there no Colt at his hip, but he’d been stripped to his birthday suit—and tried to orient himself to reality.

The room was dark and a little chilly, and it smelled faintly of some flowery cologne, which probably meant there was a woman around somewhere.

The thought made him smile, despite the lingering pain, which had transmuted itself from a stabbing sensation to a burning ache in the few minutes since he’d opened his eyes. There weren’t many situations that couldn’t be improved by the presence of a lady.

He squinted, managed to raise himself a little, with the pillows behind him providing support. Snow-speckled moonlight entered through the one window, set high in the wall, and spilled onto the intricate patterns of the several quilts that covered him to the waist.

“Hullo?” he called into the darkness.

She appeared in the doorway then, carrying a flickering kerosene lamp, a small but well-made woman with dark hair and a wary way of carrying herself.

She looked familiar, but Sawyer couldn’t quite place her.

“You’re awake, then,” she said rhetorically, staying well away from the bed, as if she thought he might grab hold of her. The impression left him vaguely indignant. “Are you hungry?”

“No,” he said, because his stomach, though empty, was still reacting to the rush of pain that had awakened him. “How’s my horse?”

In the light of the lantern, he saw her smile slightly. Decided she was pretty, if a mite on the scrawny side. Her waist looked no bigger around than a fence post, and she wasn’t very tall, either.

“Your horse is quite comfortable,” she said. “Are you in pain? The doctor left laudanum in case you needed it.”

Sawyer guessed, from the bitter taste in his mouth, that he’d already had at least one dose, and he was reluctant to take another. Basically distilled opium, the stuff caused horrendous nightmares and fogged up his brain.

“I’m all right,” he said.

She didn’t move.

He had fuzzy memories of being shot and falling off his horse, but he wasn’t sure if he’d actually seen his cousin Clay or just dreamed he was there. He did recollect the doctor, though—that sawbones had poured liquid fire into the gaping hole in his shoulder, made him yell because it hurt so bad.

“Do you have a name?” he asked.

She bristled, and he guessed at the color of her eyes—dark blue, maybe, or brown. It was hard to tell, in the glare of that lantern she was holding. “Of course I do,” she replied primly. “Do you?”

Sawyer gave a raw chuckle at that. She was an impertinent little dickens, he thought, probably able to hold her own in an argument. “Sawyer McKettrick,” he conceded, with a slight nod of his head. “I’m Clay’s cousin, here to take over as town marshal.”

“Well,” she said, remaining in the doorway, “you’re off to a wonderful start, aren’t you?”

He chuckled again, though it took more energy than he felt he could spare. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. “I reckon I am.”

“Piper St. James,” she said then, without laying any groundwork beforehand.

“What?”

“You asked for my name.” A pause, during which she raised the lantern a little higher, saw that he was bare-chested, and quickly lowered it again. “You can call me ‘Miss James.’”

“Thanks for that, anyhow,” he said, enjoying the exchange, however feeble it was on his end. “Thanks for looking after my horse, too, and, unless I miss my guess, saving my life.”

Miss St. James’s spine lengthened; she must have been all of five foot two, and probably weighed less than his saddlebags. “I couldn’t just leave you lying out there in the snow,” she said, with a sort of puckish modesty.

From her tone, Sawyer concluded that she’d considered doing just that, though, fortunately for him, her conscience must have overruled the idea.

“You’d have had to step over me every time you went out,” he teased, “and that would have been awkward.”

He thought she smiled then, though he couldn’t be sure because the light fell forward from the lantern and left her mostly in shadow.

“What is this place?” he asked presently, when she didn’t speak.

“You’re in the Blue River schoolhouse,” Miss St. James informed him. “I teach here.”

“I see,” Sawyer said, wearying, though he was almost as much in the dark, literally and figuratively, as before he’d asked the question. “Was Clay here?” he threw out. “Or did I imagine that part?”

“He was here,” Miss St. James confirmed. “He’s gone home now—his wife is expecting a baby soon, and he didn’t like leaving her alone—but he’ll be back as soon as the weather allows.”

Sawyer was quiet for a while, gathering scraps of strength, trying to breathe his way past a sudden swell of pain. “You don’t have to be scared of me,” he told her, after a long time.

“I’m not,” she lied, still cautious. Still keeping her distance.

“I reckon I can’t blame you,” Sawyer said, closing his eyes to regain his equilibrium. The pain rose to a new crescendo, and the room had begun to pitch and sway.

“The laudanum is there on the nightstand,” she informed him helpfully, evidently seeing more than he’d wanted her to. “And the chamber pot is under the bed.”

He felt his lips twitch. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.

“You’re certain you don’t want something to eat?”

“Maybe later,” he managed to reply.

He thought she’d go away then, but she hesitated. “You were asking for someone named Josie,” she said. “Perhaps when the weather is better, we could send word to her, that you’ve been hurt, I mean.”

Sawyer opened his eyes again, swiftly enough to set the little room to spinning again. “That won’t be necessary,” he bit out, but he felt a certain bitter amusement imagining what would happen if word of his misfortune were to reach her. Josie was his last employer’s very fetching wife, and she’d made it clear that she wanted more from Sawyer than protection and cordial conversation. He’d had the same problem before, with other wives of men he worked for, along with their sisters and daughters in some instances, and he’d always managed to sidestep any romantic entanglements, be they physical or emotional—until Josie.

He’d
wanted
Josie, and that was why he’d agreed to come to Blue River and fill in for Clay, as temporary marshal—to put some distance between himself and the sweet temptation to bed his boss’s wife, to burn in her fire, let lust consume him.

He’d left in the nick of time.

Or had he?

Had the shooter been one of Henry Vandenburg’s hirelings, one of his own former colleagues, sent to make sure Sawyer stayed away from the old man’s wife—forever?

It was possible, of course. Vandenburg was rich, and he was powerful, and he probably wasn’t above having a rival dispensed with, but even for him, ordering the murder of one of Angus McKettrick’s grandsons would have been pretty risky. His and Clay’s granddad, even at his advanced age, was a force of nature in his own right, owning half of Arizona as he did, and so were his four sons. Holt, Rafe, Kade—Sawyer’s father—and Jeb, who’d sired Clay, were all law-abiding citizens, happily married men with children and even a few grandchildren, money in the bank and a prosperous ranch to run. Still, the untimely death of any member of the clan would rouse them to Earp-like fury, and Vandenburg surely knew that. In fact, it was that dogged quality that had caused the old reprobate to hire Sawyer as a bodyguard in the first place.

“Mr. McKettrick?” Miss Piper St. James was standing right beside the bed now, holding the lantern high. There was concern in her voice—enough to draw her to his bedside, thereby risking some nefarious assault on her virtue. “Are you all right? For a moment, you looked—I thought…”

She lapsed awkwardly into silence.

He might have reminded her, if he’d had the strength, that,
no,
actually, he
wasn’t
“all right,” because he’d been
shot.
Instead, he asked slowly, measuring out each word like a storekeeper dispensing sugar or flour, “Do you happen to have any whiskey on hand?”

CHAPTER 3

“O
f
course I don’t have any whiskey,” Piper replied, with a little more sharpness in her tone than she’d intended to exercise. “This is a
school,
not a roadhouse.”

“Well, damn,” Sawyer said, affably gruff and clearly still in pain. “I could sure use a shot of good old-fashioned rotgut right about now. Might take the edge off.”

Having set the kerosene lantern on the nightstand so she wouldn’t drop it and set the whole place on fire, Piper took a step back. Rotgut, indeed. “Then I guess it’s too bad you fell off your horse here instead of in front of the Bitter Gulch Saloon.”

He favored her with a squinty frown at this, and she wondered distractedly what he’d look like in the daylight, cleaned up and wearing something besides bandages, her quilts and the dish-towel sling Dr. Howard had put on his left arm. “Are you one of those hatchet-swinging types?” he asked, with a note of benign disapproval. “The kind who go around hacking perfectly good bars to splinters, shattering mirrors and breaking every bottle on the shelves?”

Piper stiffened slightly, offended, though she couldn’t think why she ought to give a pin about this man’s—this
stranger’s
—opinion of her. “No,” she said tersely. “If some people choose to pollute their systems with poison, to the detriment of their wives and children and society in general, it’s none of my concern.”

He laughed then, a hoarse bark of a sound, brittle with pain. “If you say so,” he said, leaving his meaning ambiguous.

Annoyed, Piper was anxious to be gone from that too-small room. She wished she hadn’t approached the bed, if only because she could see so much of his bare chest. It was disturbing—though it did remind her of the gods and heroes she’d read about in Greek mythology.

She gathered her dignity, an effort of unsettling significance, reached out to reclaim the lantern. “If you don’t need anything, I’ll leave you to get some rest,” she said, speaking as charitably as she could.

“I do need something,” he told her quietly.

Piper took another step back. The lantern light wavered slightly, and she renewed her grip on the handle. “What?” she asked cautiously.

“Company,” Sawyer replied. “Somebody to talk to while I wait for this bullet hole in my shoulder to settle down a little—it feels like somebody dropped a hot coal into it. Why don’t you take a chair—if there is one—and tell me what brings a proper lady like you to a rough town like Blue River.”

Was he making fun of her, using the term “a proper lady” ironically?

Or was she being not only harsh, but priggish, too?

She set the lantern back on the night table and drew her rocking chair into the faint circle of light, sat down and folded her hands in her lap. For the moment, that was all the concession she could bring herself to make. And it seemed like plenty.

“Well?” Sawyer McKettrick prompted. “I can tell by the way you talk and carry yourself that you’re an Easterner. What are you doing way out here in the wilds of Texas?”

“I told you,” Piper said distantly, primly. “I teach school.”

“They don’t have schools back where you came from, in Massachusetts or New Hampshire or wherever you belong?”

“I’m from Maine, if you must know,” she allowed, suppressing an urge to argue that she “belonged” wherever she wanted to be. “Dara Rose—Clay’s wife—is my cousin. She persuaded me to come out here and take over for the last teacher, Miss Krenshaw.”

“Dara Rose,” he said, with a fond little smile. “Clay’s a lucky man, finding a woman like her.”

“I quite agree,” Piper said, softening toward him, albeit unwillingly and only to a minimal degree.

He studied her thoughtfully in the flickering light of the lantern. “Does it suit you—life in the Wild West, I mean?” he inquired politely. She saw that a muscle had bunched in his jaw after he spoke, knew he was hurting, and determined to ride it out without complaint. Like Clay, he was tough, though Clay wore the quality with greater grace, being a more reticent sort.

Piper paused, considering her reply. “It’s lonely sometimes,” she admitted, at last.

“Everyplace is lonely sometimes,” he answered.

This was a statement Piper couldn’t refute, so she made one of her own. “It sounds as if you speak from experience,” she said carefully.

He grinned a wan shadow of a grin, lifted his right hand in a gesture of acquiescence. “Sure,” he replied. “Happens to everybody.”

Even in his weakened state, Sawyer McKettrick did not strike Piper as the kind of person who ever lacked for anything. There was something about him, some quality of quiet sufficiency, of untroubled wholeness, that shone even through his obvious physical discomfort.

“I do enjoy spending my days with the children,” she said, strangely flustered, sensing that there was far more to this man than what showed on the surface.

“I reckon that’s a good thing, since you’re a teacher,” he observed dryly.

A silence fell, and Piper found herself wanting to prattle, just to fill it. And she was most definitely
not
a prattler, so this was a matter for concern.

“I might be able to handle some food, after all,” Sawyer ventured presently, unhurriedly. “If the offer is still good, that is.”

Relieved to have an errand to perform, however mundane, Piper fairly leaped to her feet, took the lamp by its handle. “There’s bean soup,” she said. “I’ll get you some.”

When she returned with a bowl and spoon in one hand and the lantern in the other, she saw that her visitor had bunched up the pillows behind him so he could sit up straighter.

She placed the lantern on the night table again and extended the bowl and spoon.

He looked at the food with an expression of amused wistfulness. “I’ve only got one good arm,” he reminded her. “I can feed myself, but you’ll have to hold the bowl.”

Piper should have anticipated this development, but she hadn’t. Gingerly, knowing she wouldn’t be able to reach far enough from the rocking chair, she sat down on the edge of the mattress, the bowl cupped in both hands.

The sure impropriety of the act sent a little thrill through her.

Deep down, she was something of a rebel, though she managed to hide that truth from most people.

Sawyer smiled and took hold of the spoon, tasted the soup. Since the fire in the stove had burned low while they were talking earlier, the stuff was only lukewarm, but he didn’t seem to mind. He ate slowly, and not very much, and finally sank back against the pillows, looking exhausted by the effort of feeding himself.

“Would you like more?” Piper ventured, drawing back the bowl. “I could—”

Sawyer grimaced, shook his head no. His skin was a waxy shade of gray, even in the thin light, and he seemed to be bleeding from his wound again, though not so heavily as before. “That’ll do for now,” he said. “I might take some laudanum, after all, though.”

Piper nodded, put the spoon and the bowl down, and reached for the brown bottle Dr. Howard had left, pulled out the cork. “I’ll just wipe off the spoon and—”

Before she could finish her sentence, though, he grabbed the bottle from her hand and took a great draught from it. The muscles in his neck corded visibly as he swallowed.

Piper blinked and snatched the vessel from him. “Mr.
McKettrick,
” she scolded, in her most teacherly voice. “That is
medicine,
not water, and it’s very potent.”

“I hope so,” he said with a sigh, closing his eyes and gritting his teeth. Waiting for the opium to reach his bloodstream. “I’d have preferred whiskey,” he added, moments later.

Soon, he was fast asleep.

Piper made sure the bottle of laudanum was out of his reach and rose to carry the lantern and the bowl and spoon out of the room, walking softly so she wouldn’t wake him—not that there seemed to be much danger of that, from the steady rasp of his breathing.

Once she’d set the bowl and spoon aside, along with the lantern, she wrapped one of the extra blankets Dr. Howard had brought around her shoulders, in lieu of a cloak, and marched herself outside, into the snowy cold, carrying the lantern again now, lighting her way to the outhouse. Normally, she would have used the enamel chamber pot tucked beneath her bed, but not this time.

The going was hard, though not quite as arduous as when she’d gone out for wood and water before, and to take care of Mr. McKettrick’s horse. She heard a reassuring dripping sound—snow melting off the eaves of the schoolhouse roof, probably—and the sky was clear and moonlit and speckled with stars.

For the time being at least, the storm was over, and that heartened Piper so much that, after using the outhouse, she went on to the shed, where the big buckskin gelding stood, quietly munching hay.

She spoke to him companionably, stroked his sturdy neck a few times, and made sure he had enough water. Clay had filled the trough earlier, instead of just setting a pail on the dirt floor of the shed, so there was plenty.

Returning to the schoolhouse, Piper set the lantern down, put the covered kettle of boiled beans on the front step, so the cold would keep its contents from spoiling. Then she shut the door, lowered the latch, and went over to bank the fire for the night.

The lamp was starting to burn low by then, so she quickly made herself a bed on the floor, using the borrowed blankets, washed her face and hands in a basin of warm water, and brushed her teeth with baking soda. Donning one of her flannel nightgowns was out of the question, of course, with a man under the same roof.

Resigned to sleeping in her clothes, she put out the lamp and stretched out on the floor, as near to the stove as she could safely get, and bundled herself in the blankets. The planks were hard, and Piper thought with yearning of her thin, lumpy mattress, the one she’d so often complained about, though only to herself and Dara Rose.

She closed her eyes, depending on exhaustion to carry her into the unknowing solace of sleep, but instead she found herself listening, not just with her ears, but with all she was. A few times, she thought she heard small feet skittering and scurrying around her, which didn’t help her state of mind.

At some point, however, she finally succumbed to a leaden, dreamless slumber.

When she awakened on that frosty floor, sore and unrested and quite disgruntled, it took her a few moments to remember why she was there, and not in her bed.

The bed was
occupied,
she recalled, with a flare of heat rising to her cheeks. By one Sawyer McKettrick.

But the sun was shining, and that lifted her spirits considerably.

She shambled stiffly to her feet, hurried to build up the fire in the potbellied stove, glanced with mild alarm at the big Regulator clock ticking on the schoolhouse wall. It was past eight, she saw, and she hadn’t rung the schoolhouse bell.

A silly concern, admittedly, since her students weren’t likely to show up, even though the snow had stopped falling and cheery daylight filled the frigid little room, absorbing the blue shadows of a wintry yesterday and the night that had followed. At the front window, Piper used the palm of one hand, no longer sore, to wipe a circle in the curlicues of frost to clear the glass. She peered out, encouraged to see that the sky was indeed blue and virtually cloudless.

Moisture dripped steadily from the roof overhead, and the road was taking shape again, a slight but visible dip in the deep, blindingly white field of snow that seemed to stretch on and on.

The voice, coming from behind her, wry and somewhat testy, nearly caused Piper to jump out of her skin. For a few moments, glorying in the change in the weather, she’d forgotten all about her uninvited guest, her night on the floor, and most of her other concerns, as well.

“Is there any coffee in this place, or would that be sinful, like keeping a stock of whiskey?” Sawyer McKettrick asked grumpily.

Piper whirled, saw him standing—
standing,
under his own power—in the doorway to her private quarters. He was still bare-chested, his bandages bulky and his bad arm in the sling Doc had improvised for him the day before, but, thankfully, he’d somehow managed to get into his trousers and even put on his boots.

He looked pale, gaunt, but ready for whatever challenges the day—or the next few minutes—might bring.

She smiled, relieved. If Sawyer was up and around, he’d be leaving soon. Maybe
very
soon. “I’ll make some coffee,” she said. “Sit down.”

He was leaning against the framework of the doorway now, probably conserving his strength, and he looked around, taking in the small desks, the benches. “Where?” he asked, practically snarling the word.

Piper was determined to be pleasant, no matter how rude Mr. McKettrick chose to be. “There’s a chair behind my desk,” she pointed out. “Take that.”

He groped his way along the wall, proof that he wasn’t as recovered as she’d first thought, pulled back the wooden chair and sank into it. “Where’s my shirt?” he asked. “And my .45?”

Piper ladled water into the small enamel coffeepot that, like the three drinking mugs, her narrow bed and the rocking chair, came with the schoolhouse. “I burned your shirt,” she said cheerfully. “It was quite ruined, between the bullet hole and all the blood. And I put away the pistol, since you won’t have use for it here.”

Sawyer thrust his free hand through his hair in exasperation. Clearly, the laudanum had worn off, and he hadn’t rested well. “I need that shirt,” he said. “
And
the .45.”

“I’m sorry,” Piper answered. “Perhaps Clay will bring you fresh clothes, when he comes to take you out to the ranch.” She refused to discuss the gun any further.

Sawyer frowned. His chin was bristly with beard stubble, and he narrowed his blue-green eyes practically to slits. “When will that be?” he growled. “My trunk is over at the train depot. Plenty of clothes in there.”

Piper didn’t reply right away, since she didn’t know precisely when Clay would return, and fetching Sawyer’s baggage from the depot was not presently an option. Instead, she put some coffee beans into the grinder and turned the handle, enjoying the rich scent as it rose to entice her. Coffee was normally a treat for Piper, though she’d been drinking more of it lately, being snowed in and everything. Since the stuff wasn’t considered a staple, like canned goods and meat, potatoes and butter, the town didn’t provide it as a part of her wages. Since she saved practically every penny toward a train ticket home to Maine, Dara Rose bought it for her, along with writing paper, postage stamps and bathing soap.

BOOK: An Outlaw's Christmas
3.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Yesterday's Shadow by Jon Cleary
The View From the Train by Patrick Keiller
Tempt Me by Shiloh Walker
Limbo (The Last Humans Book 2) by Dima Zales, Anna Zaires
Fill Me by Crystal Kaswell
The Hot Rock by Donald Westlake
Unleashed by Jessica Brody
The Living by Anna Starobinets