Claim: A Novel of Colorado (The Homeward Trilogy) (21 page)

BOOK: Claim: A Novel of Colorado (The Homeward Trilogy)
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“Yes, well,” Mr. Kazin said, sniffing, “regardless of how you put it, you are very much alive now, aren’t you, Mr. St. Clair? And you, Mrs. LaCrosse.”

“Very much,” Nic responded drily.

Mr. Kazin dismounted, and Mr. Dell followed suit. “Bring her,” Mr. Kazin said to a man beside the sheriff’s body, gesturing toward Sabine, then walking over to Nic. Behind him, the man grabbed Sabine’s arm and yanked her to her feet. Nic had to force himself to remain where he was, well aware that neither Rinaldi’s eyes nor his gun ever left him.

Mr. Kazin reached inside his coat pocket. He looked over his shoulder to Mr. Dell. “Bring the pen and ink, please.”

“These,” he said, holding out two sheets of paper in front of Nic’s face, “are the deeds to both your mine and Mrs. LaCrosse’s. You shall sign them over to us now.”

Nic scoffed. “For what reason would I do that? As soon as we sign them, you’ll kill us.”

“This is true,” Mr. Kazin said, raising a brow. “One way or another, you have seen the end of your living days. We can kill you and lay claim to the properties before anyone else even knows you’re gone. But it’ll be much cleaner if we have your signatures.”

“I’m sorry,” Nic said. “But I missed why we would want to make anything easier for you.”

Mr. Kazin stared at him for a moment, then at Sabine, and then slowly looked over at Everett and back. His inference was clear.

“Sign the documents,” Kazin said lowly, “and I’ll see the child to the orphanage in Buena Vista. If you refuse—” he paused, letting his words sink in—“he’ll die alongside you.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Nic moved to strike Mr. Kazin, and Rinaldi instantly rammed him in the shoulder again. Sabine winced and turned away, well aware of how such a blow would affect him. She heard him moan and fall back against the tree. Tears streamed down her face. The violence, the blows.
Too much, Lord. I cannot take it.
Her mind cascaded back to Henri, her husband, how he had become expert at bruising her where no one else could see. Until that final day when he broke her arm and battered her face. It was then that Sinopa returned to her, cared for her. And Henri disappeared forever …

She was trembling, shaking as hard as she once did when she feared Henri’s approach. But then her eyes met Everett’s. He was twenty paces away, arms wrapped around his knees, peering over at her, his forehead a wrinkled mass. He was afraid, so afraid.

Immediately, Sabine’s waves of fear turned into white-hot anger. Never before had she been so angry. With a cry of rage she grabbed the pen from Mr. Dell’s fat hand and rammed the tip into Mr. Kazin’s cheek. “Run, Ev!” she screamed, even as she lifted Rinaldi’s arm and ducked. He fired at the same time, but the bullet went high.

Nic plunged back into the fight, incapacitated as he was, and Sabine joined in his attack on their tormentor. A gun went off, and then another. She waited, thinking that at any moment a bullet might pierce her chest or head as Rinaldi’s men gathered themselves to take better aim, but then there were other men about them, entering the fray, exchanging blows. The others! The others had made it out of the tunnel.
The tide is turning. There is hope,
she thought, slapping away a tiny pistol in portly Mr. Dell’s hand.

She looked to the side, searching for Everett, hoping he was gone, but then he was flying at Mr. Kazin, who was hunched over, gingerly trying to pull the stuck pen from his cheek. The boy hopped on the tall man’s back and pulled backward on his neck, as if he meant to strangle him. The man grabbed hold of him and savagely tossed him to the ground. But Everett came skidding to a stop six feet away and rounded, as if to come at him again.

Another two guns fired in rapid succession.

Beside her, Nic and Rinaldi crumpled to the ground. Sabine’s gaze flew to them. Who was hit?

Before her, Mr. Dell, hovering over his pistol, as if he had been about to reach for it, clutched his chest and then fell on his face, into the dirt.

Then she saw Mr. Kazin raise his hands, his face grim in defeat. He was giving up. They had won.

Her eyes went to Nic and Rinaldi.

Rinaldi, too, had his hands up and was rising.

But Nic was motionless on the ground before him.

o

Moira opened her eyes as wide as possible, as if she might be able to suddenly see in the dark. Was he here? Could he possibly see her?

Her pulse thundered in her ears, a dull, muffled
whoosh
audible even over the
clickety-clack
of the train tracks beneath her feet. She felt behind her for the wood-paneled wall, and then edged to the right, where she knew the piano was. She wanted to know no one was beside her or behind her.

She bumped into the piano bench with her right knee, then edged farther in. With a sweep of her right hand, she knew the corner was empty. Before her was the piano. That left only a space to her left where he could come at her. If he was coming after her. If he was here at all.

Maybe it had been the conductor, on his way to the engine.

But he wouldn’t have tried her doorknob.

She waited, willing her breathing to ease from quick frantic pants to a slower stream, still listening for any movement at all, since she could see little.

A favorite hymn of her grandmother’s ran through her mind.

God, my Lord, my strength,

My place of hiding, and confiding,

In all needs by night and day;

Though foes surround me,

And Satan mark his prey,

God shall have His way.

Father, have Your way here, now,
she prayed.
Give me Your strength. I am Yours. Claim me, Lord, as I claim You as my God. With You by my side, who can harm me?

She straightened and felt a pervading sense of peace surround her.

A sound made her turn her head toward the passageway.

Someone else was coming.

o

Mr. McManus knelt beside Sabine and reached out to feel for Nic’s pulse.

Everett came to her and she gathered him into her lap, but still Mr. McManus did not turn.

She closed her eyes and held her breath.
Please don’t let him die, Lord. Please don’t let him die.

“He’s alive,” Mr. McManus said. But there was no trace of joy in his voice, only a grim announcement. Clearly, Nic was in mortal danger.

“So is Drew,” the deputy called, beside Sheriff Nelson. The deputy was on the other side. He’d turned Sheriff Nelson over. His shirt was bright with blood.

“We have to get them to the doctor,” Mr. McManus said.

“And these men into the jail cell,” the deputy added.

“Do you think they’ll survive the ride down the mountain?” Sabine asked in a whisper.

No one heard her. The men left in their party scurried to secure the would-be assassins, tying them behind horses. They would have to walk.

“Quickly, Sabine,” Mr. McManus said. “We must bind their wounds, keep them from losing any more blood.” Sabine and the deputy surged into the task, ripping pieces of fabric from her underskirt to create bands that could go around and around the men’s wounds.

One of the sheriff’s investors and the deputy climbed atop the two largest horses and then motioned to the others to bring the sheriff and Nic. Mr. Avery and Mr. McManus carried the sheriff first, holding him between them like a hammock in a tree. “Go, go,” Sabine urged. She and Everett climbed on a third horse. The others silently agreed to hike down behind them all, keeping a close watch on the men who had almost killed them.

“You think this is over?” Rinaldi sneered as he walked behind the first horse.

“It is for you,” Sabine said. She looked at the deputy. “If he does anything suspicious at all, kill him.”

o

The door opened, and with it came the warm, welcome light of a lamp.

She glanced around the train car as it illuminated the space, and saw that no one else was present. Moira turned back to the man with the lamp—the diminutive pianist.

His hand was over his heart, his mouth open. “Heavens, miss, what are you doing here in the dark?” His eyes moved to the umbrella, still clenched in her right hand. “Are you all right?” He scanned the rest of the car, as if seeking what had frightened her so.

Moira sank down to the piano bench and slowly released the umbrella. She’d been holding it so hard that her hand ached.

“What were you doing in here? Alone? And at such an hour?”

“I could ask the same of you,” she said.

“I couldn’t sleep. Sleeper car, my foot,” he said with a scornful sound. “We’d be better served stopping at the railroad hotels. I came in here to play some piano.” He stepped forward, gingerly. “Name’s Benjamin Bonser. My friends call me Ben.”

“Nice to meet you, Ben,” she said, accepting his hand. “I’ll vacate so you might resume your piano playing. I enjoyed it after our noon meal.”

She moved off the bench and he smiled, set the lamp atop the piano, and then took a seat. “Stay, if you like,” he said. “Apparently you had difficulty sleeping too?”

“Indeed,” she said. Her eyes slid up and down the car once more, just to make certain they were alone.

The man who had tried to enter her compartment was likely the same one who had slipped the poster onto her table. He sought to provoke or control her, somehow, by wielding his knowledge of her identity over her.

There was one way she could diminish that power.

She could acknowledge her identity herself.

A slow smile spread across her lips. “Ben,” she said quietly. “Remember that song you were playing at supper? Do you still have the music?”

o

The ride down the Gulch had never seemed so torturously long. All the way to the bottom, Sabine kept wondering if they would lose one or both men.

“Is he gonna die, Sabine?” Everett asked, from behind her.

“I hope not, Ev,” she returned.

“If he does, can I live with you?” he said.

“Right now, let’s hope for the best and pray God delivers them, all right?”

He nodded, his head bouncing against her back. The poor child had to be lost in grief, the loss of his father so fresh, and now potentially Nic. She swallowed hard around a ball in her throat. She could not cry again now. To do so would mean never stopping. She concentrated on the wind in the trees, the thousands of fluttering leaves of the aspens, the clouds high above, curling and spreading and curling again.

They picked their way down the trail, relying on the light of the lanterns. Had it been just this morning that they had all ridden up the Gulch, the thrill of potential and plans thick in their minds? It was too much to absorb. She opened her eyes wide, suddenly aware of how weary she was—almost near collapse. She had to stay strong for Everett, for Nic. She had to see this through.

She looked out again to the valley, to the silhouette of trees against a starry sky. She could smell the smoke from fireplaces about the valley. She used to imagine her neighbors fixing dinner, eating together, playing a hand of cards, climbing into their beds at night. Now, as their horses descended, all Sabine could sense was the smoke, entering her lungs, making her want to cough. She wanted to be away from this place, free of it. Far from the memories of Henri and his ways, which were like the smoke—encircling, stifling, choking. She wanted to be with Nic, who was more like the stars, circling, dancing, moving forward.

Sabine moved her head, daring to look beyond Mr. Avery to Michael McManus, who held Nic in front of him to keep him from tumbling from the horse. She knew it had to be hard, holding the weight of the unconscious man, but he held Nic tight. She glanced back at Mr. Kazin. Blood still streamed down his face and neck from the puncture wound she’d inflicted with the pen, and he stared back at her, his eyes dull with rage.

That’s right,
she said to him silently.
You’re only fortunate I didn’t have my rifle when I realized how much I loathed you.

She turned back around, knowing Everett was watching her. She would find a way to make Kazin and Rinaldi and the rest pay.

But it would mean little if Nic was not with them.

Their horse stumbled and Everett’s arms shot around her waist. He leaned hard, then righted himself. “Sorry,” he muttered.

Sabine glanced down at his hands, in a knot now in front of her.

Then she reached down and covered them with one of her own. “It’s all right, Ev,” she said. “Somehow, some way, this will all turn out all right.”

She looked ahead to Michael’s back again, and Nic’s body, swaying before him.

But were her words anything more than a lie meant to soothe them both?

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Once it was known that Moira was aboard the train, the passengers were atwitter. The result was that she was hardly alone after that, giving her the welcome insulation of people from morning until late at night.

The only thing that nagged at her was that one of the men at her dining table—or hovering about as she sang with Ben’s accompaniment that evening—could be the one who had tried to get into her compartment. But try as she might to determine who it was, no one gave her a further clue. Every man appeared to be a gentleman, never peering too long or asking too many questions. More than five were traveling alone, which to Moira’s mind made them likelier suspects than others, but their utterly polite ways made Moira feel paranoid for doubting any of them.

Had the interloper somehow escaped the train?

She still spent the next night fully dressed, and with the chair lodged under the knob, but no one came to her door.

Moira awakened the next morning, accepted a pitcher of warm water from the steward, and peered outside. The train was slowing. A grin spread across her face. They were rounding a curve in the tracks and for a brief moment, the skyline of the city was in view. Her heart picked up its pace. The thought of being surrounded by people, of meeting the Knapps, of being amidst so much life felt good, right to her.

Clearly God meant for her to come here.

Why else would she feel so deliriously happy?

o

“He’s waking up,” said a grizzled voice, tinged with jubilation.

Nic tried to open his eyes again but they felt heavy, as if sandbags covered them. He shifted his eyes back and forth and then forced them to blink. Bright morning sun blinded him and he closed them again.

“Nic,” Sabine said. He wanted to smile and laugh in relief at the sound of her voice, but he could not seem to make himself do anything at all. She came to him then, sitting so close that he could smell her, the wild, woodsy scent of her. She took his hand in hers, and he could feel the strength of her small fingers, warm and dry. “Ev,” she called toward the far end of the room. Where were they? Why couldn’t he open his eyes and see them? “Ev, come over here. He’s waking up.”

He concentrated hard, focusing on this one task, and at last, his eyelids fluttered open. They closed again, but at least he could glimpse them, these two he had come to love. He smiled, or tried to smile anyway.

Everett was grinning and Sabine was smiling, her eyes wet with tears. “Nic, Nic,” she said, rising, “you’ve come back to us.” Then she leaned over and gently, slowly, placed a warm kiss on his forehead. Her fragrance surrounded him, and he longed to rise and pull her into his arms and kiss her in return. But he could do nothing.

“Just sit tight,” came the grizzled voice again, along with a pat on his arm. The pat sent a surge of pain up his arm and through his dislocated shoulder. His eyes shot open.

“Oh, sorry about that, young man. We got it back into place, but it likely hurts like the dickens still, eh?” The doctor glanced at Sabine, and she moved away so he could examine Nic’s eyes, first one, then the other. He brought a lamp closer—lit even though the room was flooded with daylight—and did the exam again. “Yep,” he announced, “it’ll take a few days, but he’s on his way.”

Three faces filled Nic’s line of vision—Sabine, Everett, and the doctor—and then he closed his eyes, giving in with some relief to unconsciousness again.

o

The deputy, with his feet up on the desk and hat over his eyes, said, “You keep walking that path, you’ll wear a track in the boards.”

Daniel paused and looked up at the ceiling. Glen was right. He’d been pacing for hours.

“What has you so tied up in knots, boss?”

He looked back and watched Glen put his feet down on the floor, rock forward in the chair, and rest his arms on the desk, waiting on Daniel to speak. Then he looked past him, to their prisoner, still stubbornly refusing to speak. The man appeared to be asleep.

“It’s Moira,” he said, with a tinge of a groan. “Miss St. Clair.”

“She your sweetheart?”

“Thought she was, once. But she left.”

Glen pursed his lips and nodded, thinking that over. “Does she plan to return?”

“I don’t know for sure.” He leaned back against the wall and crossed his arms.

“So … what’s holding you back? Why not go after her?”

Daniel pulled his head to one side. “Responsibilities. To you boys, the job …”

Glen studied him. “Something else?”

Was he so transparent? He frowned and looked at the floor, then back to Glen. He ignored the prisoner, still unmoving. “My wife was killed, some time back,” Daniel said lowly. “I thought I might’ve seen him, that day we captured him in Conquistador.” He nodded to the back.

Glen stared at him. “Here? You think your wife’s killer is here?”

Daniel shut his eyes and ran his hand through his hair, feeling the heat of embarrassment on his neck. It sounded foolish when he said it. Was he a fool?

“Stranger things have happened.…”

“No. You’re right. But it’s a long shot.”

After a moment, Glen said, “So, you let Miss St. Clair go, because your wife’s murderer might be about?”

“I didn’t let Miss St. Clair do anything,” he defended. “She did it on her own.”

“But she might not have done it if you had been more … attentive?”

Daniel shot him a look that said he’d gone too far. The deputy leaned back, put his feet on the desk, and lowered his hat over his face again, as if to say he was done with the conversation. Daniel turned and leaned against the window frame, staring outside. It was a quiet night in Westcliffe. Even the saloons seemed to have few patrons entering and exiting.

Was Moira there in New York, yet? What would happen if she passed by a saloon, unaccompanied? Even Gavin Knapp had not allowed her to travel alone. But now she was alone, without a chaperone. Because of him. Because he had walked away.

He sighed heavily, Glen’s words running through his mind, over and over.
So you let Miss St. Clair go, because your wife’s murderer might be about?
Might be about. Or very well might not be.

How long would Daniel let the shadows of the past darken the hope of his future? He took the job because he knew he’d be good at it, in spite of Moira’s concerns, in spite of her fears, protests. But he took it, if he was honest with himself, for one primary goal: to find Mary’s remaining killer and bring him to justice.

Daniel brought a hand up to his face and rubbed his temples.
How long, Lord? How long, until I trust You and Your timing again?

He knew God’s justice frequently did not match man’s sense of timing. And a thought darted through his mind. What if Mary’s killer, imperfectly remembered, was somewhere far away, even in jail? Or dead?

I’m chasing a ghost.

And I’ve let my second chance at love, a full life, walk away.

o

Nic awakened again the next day, feeling far more alert. He blinked several times, and while his body felt unaccountably weary, he could move his head. He gazed upon Sabine, sleeping in the corner in a chair, her long hair falling out of a knot and partially over her face, and at Everett in the other corner, curled up in a winged-back chair.

He didn’t want to disturb either of them, but he needed to move, and he was desperate for a drink of water. Slowly, he curled his toes and tightened the muscles in his legs. All seemed in order there. But he could feel the tight bandages around his waist. Had he been shot? Dimly, he remembered the firefight at the pond, Rinaldi, Sabine, and Everett …

Nic lifted the sheet and blanket that covered him and positioned his head to look. White bandages were wound around his torso, making him appear partially mummified. Two red splotches, each about five inches in diameter, spread out across the white, like intersecting planets.

Shot twice. I was shot twice.
No wonder his body wasn’t as anxious to move as his mind was.

A man about his age came in then and gave him a gentle smile. He glanced over at Everett and Sabine, then back at him. “Good to see you awake,” he said in a whisper, reaching out a hand. He gestured over at the others with a tip of his head. “They will be too. I’m Dr. Deck.”

“Doc,” Nic said, wincing a bit as he shook his hand, wincing a bit at the pain in his torso.

“Easy, there,” the doctor said, gently settling his hand. “It’ll take a while, but you’ll heal up in time.”

“I hope so,” Nic said, looking over to Sabine. She was stirring.

The doctor felt Nic’s forehead and then took his pulse. “You’re a little clammy, but that’s typical with bullet wounds. No fever, which is good. And your pulse is decent. Except when you look over at her,” he added in a quieter whisper. “She’s a fine-looking woman. You’re a lucky man.”

“Yes I am,” Nic said. He remembered her words in the cave, just before she so bravely set out to look for the next tunnel, a tunnel that ultimately led them all to freedom, to life. She loved him. She
loved
him. And he loved her. He shook his head at the wonder of it.

“Sheriff’s lucky too,” the doctor said. “He’s in the other room. Similar wounds. But like yours, the bullets passed clean through. You two kept me busy, but I think you’ll both be all right.”

“We owe you much, Doc.”

“Just doing my job,” he said with a shrug. He raised a brow. “But I tell ya, I could use a good night’s sleep. Think you can stay out of any further gunfights for a few days?”

“I’ll do my best.”

The doctor poured him a glass of water and helped him sit up so he could drink some of it. Then he set down the glass and left the room, presumably to check on the sheriff.

Sabine woke then with a start and rose quickly. She looked lovely, her hair disheveled. Nic longed to reach up and pull it loose, see it cascade across her shoulders. “Nic! Oh, Nic, you’re back,” she said, moving toward the cot on which he lay.

“Never left,” he said, hiding his desire to wince again as she took his hand and lifted it to her cheek.

“I was so afraid,” she said, looking into his eyes.

“I was too,” he said. “Afraid something would happen to you or Everett.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t tolerate that. I know … I know it must’ve been tough, seeing me fighting like that, Sabine. I could see it in your eyes,” he rushed on. “Brought back some bad memories, huh?”

She looked away, still holding his hand, and then nodded quickly.

“Look at me, love,” he said quietly. He waited until she met his eyes again. “I have a history of fighting. It’s been who I am for a long time. But something’s happened to me here, since I got back to the States again, really …”

“You don’t have to—”

“No, let me finish. This is important. For us. God has been working on me, softening my heart. Healing me. Getting me ready for you. I was angry at Him for a long time, which made me angry at the world. But it was only when we were in danger, when you and Ev were in danger, that I wanted to fight again. I’m going to do my best to be a man of peace. Of peace. The only thing that will move me to fight is defending you, Ev, myself. All right?”

She nodded again.

He caressed her pretty face. “Sabine, you said you loved me in that tunnel. Did you mean it?”

Her eyes searched his. “Yes,” she said softly.

“I’m so glad,” he said with a smile. “Because I’d like to marry you. As fast as possible. I can’t do this properly, get down on my knee and all, but I can’t wait another minute. Would you do me the honor of being my wife, Sabine? I am in love with you. And I’ll do my best to always show you that love.”

Sabine grinned and her eyelashes grew wet with tears. She leaned down and kissed him, softly, slowly. “Yes,” she whispered when her face hovered a feather’s width from his. “Yes.”

“I can feel you looking, Ev,” Nic said, as she pulled away. He glanced over at the boy, who squirmed in his seat at having been caught spying. But Nic smiled. “Come over here.” He reached out his other hand.

Everett moved over to them, as if expecting punishment.

“Take my hand, Ev.”

The boy did so, and Nic looked from Sabine to Everett. “Ev, in case you only caught our kiss, Sabine just agreed to marry me. That makes me about the happiest man in Colorado. I know I’ll be the happiest if one other person agrees to something.”

“What?” Everett asked.

“Would you be willing to be a part of our family, Ev?” Nic asked. “Stay with me and Sabine. Let us raise you?”

Everett smiled.

“I take it that’s a yes?”

Everett nodded.

Nic sighed, wincing this time. But he couldn’t keep his grin from returning. He closed his eyes, holding on to both their hands. “You two have made me so happy. We have so much ahead of us. So much. But right now, I need to go back to sleep.…”

o

Inside her lovely hotel room, Moira turned and watched as the steward set down her valises. She planned to purchase a few more dresses while in the city. Slowly, she pulled off her kidskin gloves and then opened her purse to pull out a coin and a letter to the Knapps. She slipped both into the young man’s palm.

BOOK: Claim: A Novel of Colorado (The Homeward Trilogy)
6.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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