Authors: Kaki Warner
“I'll send Yancey to fetch her.”
“You don't understand. She's blind. She would be terrified if he approached her. Maybe even run off.”
Audra couldn't bear to think of the little dog lost in the woods, unable to see or protect herself. It would be the end of her. Which would probably mean the end of Father, too, since Cleo was the only thing he seemed to recognize lately.
“Audra, be sensible.” Lucinda rose, her alarm apparent. “It's not safe. If I let you go and anything happened to you, I would never forgive myself.”
Ethan Hardesty's words just before he ran from the church echoed through Audra's mind.
Stay here until we get back. No telling where he'll strike next.
She thought he had been trying to frighten her. But what if he was right?
She might be hardheaded, but she didn't consider herself foolish.
“All right. We'll stay the night. But first, I must get Cleo. I can't leave her locked up all night in a place she's not yet accustomed to. Please tell Winnie to watch over Father until either Curtis or I come back.”
“Of course. But you're not going out there alone. I'll send Yancey with you.”
*Â *Â *
“What do you think, Thomas?” Sheriff Brodie asked. “White? Indian? White man trying to make it look like an Indian? A trapper?”
“Could be one of those yellow folks,” Curtis suggested. “They wear funny shoes that might leave a track like that.”
Ethan watched the Cheyenne study the trail, his blunt-tipped fingers lightly playing over the dips and ridges in the dirt. It was the third time they'd covered this area. He was starting to lose hope as daylight faded. And he was hungry.
“Not Indian.” Redstone pointed at several broken twigs on a nearby bush. “Too sloppy.” He continued along the trail, carefully keeping to the side so he wouldn't muss what prints there were. “Do the yellowskins have horses?”
“Not usually,” Ethan answered. “The railroad ships them by train wherever they're needed. Although I guess it wouldn't be too difficult to get a horse. Anyone report one missing, Sheriff?”
Brodie shook his head. “The Chinese around here aren't known for thievery, anyway. They may have some odd practices, and dress funny with that long pigtail, but I've never had trouble with any of them.”
Ethan sighed. Then who was doing this? And why? Who would benefit most by keeping the bridge line from coming through? Another railroad?
It wasn't inconceivable. Friction between competing railroads often erupted in violence. He also knew that a route through the southern Rockies could be worth a fortune over the years. Had their rival, the Southern Utah and Atlantic, sent someone to impede the project?
Wearily, he rubbed a hand over his stinging eyes. The stink of scorched wood and lamp oil hung in the air, and thin wisps of smoke still coiled above the smoldering boards scattered down the slope into the ravine. Whoever had done this wanted the lumber totally destroyed this time, and had doused it with lamp oil before setting it afire. Fortunately, most of the wood was still green and didn't burn well, or they might have lost more than three sections. As it was, the damage was more of a nuisance than a major setbackâbut Ethan would now have to report another delay to his employers.
Redstone looked up, eyes focused on the other side of the ravine.
Ethan turned to follow his gaze. Squinting through trees and fading light, he saw movement along the lower road. A black buggy.
What was Audra doing out here? Hadn't he told her to stay in town until they returned?
Stubborn, willful, pigheadedâ
“That Miss Audra?” Curtis asked, frowning into the gloom.
. Has your firecracker gone off without you?”
Heat flooded Ethan's face. “I don't know what you're talking about.” He stalked over to where he'd tied Renny, wondering where Redstone had gotten the ridiculous notion that Audra Pearsall was
“Firecracker?” Brodie looked around, then caught sight of the buggy moving on the other side of the ravine. “Who's that?”
Scowling, Ethan swung up on Renny. “Never mind. I'll take care of it.” And before they could question him further, he backtracked to an easy cross, turned Renny off the trail, and headed down the slope to the other side of the ravine.
s Ethan rode into the clearing surrounding the cabin, something green darted through the treesâsomething a shade paler than the surrounding vegetation, with yellow markings.
What was she doing? Who was she running from?
Alarmed, he spurred Renny. “Audra,” he called, coming up behind her.
She whirled, bonnet askew, long, light brown curls tumbling around her shoulders. When she saw him dismounting, she rushed forward, spooking Renny into a side step that almost caught his foot.
“Ethan, help me! Cleo ran off, and we can't find her anywhere.”
“The dog?” Ethan let out a relieved breath. Just like the woman to get hysterical over a lost dog.
Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to see Yancey charging through the brush. When he saw Ethan, he stopped, breathing hard. “What are you doing here?”
“What are you?”
“The boss sent us to fetch Miss Audra's dog. Danged thing ran out when we opened the door. Don't find her soon, she'll be somebody's dinner.”
At Audra's gasp, Ethan gave him a scolding look. “We'll find her,” he said, tying Renny to a tree. “You look along the other side of the clearing, Yancey. We'll check here.” After taking his pistol from his saddlebag and slipping it into his belt, he motioned Audra to fall in behind him. “Stay close,” he said, and led off into the brush.
Daylight was fading fast and made footing treacherous as they picked their way over downed limbs and through heavy undergrowth. Audra kept calling, her voice wobbly and high, but there was no answering bark.
Fine time for the yapper to fall silent. Ethan shoved chokecherry branches out of his way, then almost fell over a rotten log. But at least by keeping quiet, the dog wasn't alerting predators to her whereabouts. Unless it was already too late.
Minutes passed. The gloom deepened. Audra's voice grew hoarse, but still she plowed on, bonnet gone now, several rips in her skirt. Ethan feared Yancey was right; if they didn't find the dog before full dark, they wouldn't find her at all.
“Ethan,” Audra said a few minutes later.
He turned to see her stopped behind him, head down, shoulders slumped. He could tell she was crying. “It's no use. She's g-gone. Maybe in the m-morningâ”
“There's still light left. If you want, I'll take you back to the cabin andâ”
In the distance, a faint bark.
He froze, head cocked. When he heard nothing more, he told Audra to call again.
Another bark. Off to the right.
“It's Cleo,” Audra cried.
Flinging aside low limbs and prickly hawthorn, Ethan followed the barks to a tangle of brambles low to the ground. From beneath it came a familiar low growl. Shoving the branches aside, he scooped up the trembling animal.
“Cleo,” Audra cried, grabbing the dog from his arms. “You naughty girl. I ought to shake you good.” Instead, she gave the dog's furry head a resounding kiss and received several in return.
Smiling, Ethan watched the joyful reunion. Seemed like a big fuss over a little dog, but it pleased him to see Audra happy again. “Let's get her back to the cabin and see if she's all right.”
It was dark by the time they retrieved Renny and worked their way back to the clearing. Yancey met them as they came out of the trees, a lamp in his hand. “Thought you got lost, too. The dog all right?”
“I think so. If you'll give me the lamp, I'll take her inside to check more thoroughly.”
As Audra went up the porch steps, Ethan turned to the old man. “I assume you intended to take her back to town.”
“Boss's orders, until things settle down.”
Ethan was gratified to know the stubborn woman would listen to somebody, even if it wasn't him.
“Catch the fellow who burned the sluice?” Yancey asked.
“Not yet. Can you ride?”
“Since 'fore you were born.”
He handed him Renny's reins. “You can ride my horse back to the livery. I'll bring the buggy.” He didn't want Audra out of his sight, plus, he was the only one with a gun. “Wait here. I'll get Miss Pearsall, and we can go together.”
When he stepped inside the cabin, he found Audra bent beside the dog, feeding the wiggling animal a bowl of what appeared to be leftover stew. Ethan's stomach rumbled, reminding him again that he hadn't eaten since before church services that morning. “Apparently she survived her ordeal.”
Audra wiped her hands on her ruined skirt and rose.
She was a mess. Hair hanging loose, leaves caught in the flyaway curls. A small scratch on her cheek, dirt smudges on her dressâhis favorite so farâand her eyes red from crying. Yet all he wanted to do was take down the rest of her hair and check under the dress for other scratches.
Stopping before him, she rested her hands on his arms, just above his elbows. “Thank you, Ethan.”
Her use of his name, and the grip of her small hands on his arm, sent a rush of heat into his chest.
“I was about to give up. If you hadn't insistedÂ .Â .Â .” Words trailed off as her eyes brimmed. “Thank you.”
Uneasy with all this gushing over something so trivial, and unable to deal with the confusing emotions her nearness generated in him, he retreated into the safety of humor. “You're not going to kiss me, are you?”
She blinked. “What?”
“I wouldn't mind. Truly. Although it's a little demeaning to be second in line after your dog.”
Her smile faltered.
He felt her grip on his arms loosen. Realizing he had only made an awkward situation worse, he retreated further. “No. You're right. It's a bad idea.”
Her hands dropped to her sides. The tears were gone, but the squint was back. “Why is it a bad idea?” She didn't ask it in a flirtatious way, but with genuine curiosity.
Leave it to Audra to pin him down. The woman was too clever to let him get away with even the slightest slip. He took a deep breath, and when he let it go, the playfulness went with it. “I'm not your hero, Audra. I never will be.”
He watched a small smile tug at the corners of her lips and felt as if something had shifted beneath his feet.
“And yet,” she went on, amusement dancing in her beautiful eyes, “you continue to do heroic things. How confusing that must be for you.”
He couldn't respond, couldn't look away. The glib words that usually came so easily had deserted him.
At his silence, a change came over her faceâconfusion, disappointment, hurtâhe couldn't tell which. But the distance he had sought was suddenly there between them. And although he knew that was best, he was sorry for it.
“It's late,” she said, turning away. “We should get back.” Lifting a shawl and bonnet from a peg, she put them on, then picked up a bundle of clothing from the table and a dog basket from the hearth. “Come, Cleo.”
A few minutes later, they were climbing into the buggy. The pooch was exhausted after her big adventure, and as soon as Audra made a bed for her in the basket behind the seat, she curled into a tight ball, tucked her nose under her bushy tail, and went to sleep.
“What kind of dog is she?” Ethan asked as he steered the buggy in behind Yancey and Renny.
“Part everything, but mostly hair. Father found her digging through refuse behind a butcher shop. They've been inseparable ever since. Lately, she's the only thing he seems to recognize.” She gave a brittle laugh. “Certainly not me.”
Ethan had heard of that happening to older folks. A form of forgetfulness that grew worse as time passed. “Dementia?”
She nodded. “It wasn't bad at first, although he seemed to forget what he was doing sometimes. His work suffered the most.”
“What work did he do?”
She took a long time to answer. Ethan sensed she was carefully picking her words, and that bothered him, even though he was just as guarded around her. But, unlike him, what could she possibly have to be ashamed of?
“He was a historian.” She reached up to brush her fingertips over her cheek, and he realized she was crying. “He rarely speaks of his work anymore. Mostly he calls for my mother, who's been gone for two decades, or tells Cleo the same stories over and over. It's all very sad.”
He reached over and put his hand over hers. “I'm sorry, Audra.”
She turned toward him. A shaft of moonlight cut through the trees and for a moment highlighted the fierce gleam in her eyes. “I won't put him in an asylum,” she said, gently pulling her hand from under his. “He's my father and I'll take care of him. I've managed so far and I will continue to do so.”
And finally he saw the reason for her truculence over the right-of-way. What he had thought of as a simple battle of wills was much more to herâan attempt to provide for her dying father by finding a safe and affordable home for him through his last years, where she could manage him, and protect him, and keep him isolated from prying eyes. Having a train running through the clearing didn't fit into that.
Ethan understood. Since the disaster at Salty Point, he had tried to do the same thingâalthough in his case he was doing it to protect himself, rather than someone else. Perhaps he had more in common with Audra's father than he had realized. They were both cripples, of a sort.
They rode in silence for a time, the clop of the horses' hooves on the rocky track the only sound in the darkness, other than an occasional night bird and the sough of the wind through the branches overhead. The temperature had dropped with the sun. Guessing by the way Audra rubbed her hands over her arms that she was cold, Ethan looped the reins loosely around the brake, slipped off his jacket and draped it over her shoulders. It hung on her slender frame.
“Thank you.” She shot him a grateful smile and pulled it closer.
Ethan nodded and studied the road ahead, ignoring the chill that cut through his thin shirt and pondering what he should do about this confounding woman.
What had started out as a mild dalliance had become much moreâto him, at leastâand now with the complication of the right-of-way hanging between them, it was liable to get messy.
He couldn't force her off her land. But he couldn't keep the railroad from coming through, either. They could build around her, skirting her property by putting a trestle over the creek to the other side of the ravine. But that wouldn't be any safer for her father, and she would be out the fee for the right-of-way.
The only other solution would be to locate a safer place for them to live.
Or build them a house himself.
If he could find the courage to pick up a drafting pen again.
Strangely, the thought of that didn't bring on the throat-seizing panic it might have a year ago. In fact, the prospect of building a home for Audra had an odd appeal.
“If you could design it yourself,” he asked on a whim, “what would you want in a house of your own?”
She chuckled. “What every woman wants. An indoor water closet.”
He smiled, enjoying her laughter. He hadn't heard it before, and liked the bubbly sound of itâlow and musical rather than shrillâlike water burbling over rocks in a stream. It was the kind of laugh that made him want to smile back. “That's all?”
“Well,” she mused, “as long as we're dreaming, I'd want a real tub with hot and cold water, and a big kitchen lined with cupboards and counters. There would have to be windows in every roomâwith glass, mind youâI don't like closed spacesâand porches front and back. The parlor would have bookcases built into the walls, and a comfortable chair by a cozy fire where I could read, and a fine, wide desk by the window where I could write.”
“Write what?” he asked, amused by her grandiose plans.
“Letters. And such like.”
“Only letters? No dreams of penning maudlin poetry or lurid novels of romance and adventure?”
“Why do you call them lurid?”
“You do!” Ethan delighted in this new insight into this complicated woman. “Why, Miss Audra, you bluestocking, you.”
He didn't need light to see the hackles had come up. “Back to that, are we?”
When she didn't respond, he glanced over at her dark silhouette against the night sky. Even in the dim moonlight, he could see the rigidity of her posture. If her chin rose any higher, the brim of her bonnet would brush the roof. “I see I have offended you, Miss Pearsall.”
“Not at all, Mr. Hardesty. Disappointed me, perhaps. But to be offended by your mockery, I would have to value your opinion. Which I do not.”
“Nonetheless, you have my apology. I'm sorry, Miss Audra. And I wasn't mocking you. I was justÂ .Â .Â . surprised, is all.”
“Why? Am I so dull, then, that I'm not allowed to indulge in whimsy?”
He tried to think up a quip that would ease the tension, then realized she deserved his honesty. “Never dull, I assure you. But burdened. With all the tasks put before you, I wonder that you would have time for such fanciful pursuits.”
She didn't respond, but a glance at her profile told him the stiffness was gone. Yet the strength of her reaction intrigued him. Had he touched a nerve? Did the prickly Miss Audra dream of being an author?
But dreams were easily crushed. He knew that firsthand.
A few minutes later, the track leveled out at the edge of town, near a small Chinese camp. Mandarin, mostly. The larger, more diverse camp was over by the rail yards. Smoke from their cooking fires rose above the tents, and strange spices scented the air. Somewhere, a woman laughed. There were few Chinese women here. Perhaps someone had brought in a whore from San Francisco.
As they rolled by, several dark-clothed men engaged in a game of fan-tan looked up. But no greetings were exchanged. Ethan knew if they weren't put to work soon, boredom would lead to increased pipe-smoking, a debilitating habit among many of their countrymen. Another reason to get Audra's right-of-way settled.