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Authors: Kristen Heitzmann

Tags: #Fiction, #Christian, #Historical, #General, #Religious

Sweet Boundless (11 page)

BOOK: Sweet Boundless
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Sam, too, had jumped down and now paced between them, looking eager to help if he could only figure out how. Quillan released a sharp breath of white cloud, then commanded his team. Carina gave Jack’s head a tug, but needn’t have. He was already responding to Quillan through Jock, his twin. She stepped backward, suddenly aware of her precarious footing. Her boots would not bite into the ice like the horses’ hooves.

She turned, holding the harness and took a careful step, then another. As long as she stepped squarely, kept her balance . . . The wagon wheels creaked over the ice, the hooves rang. Another step and more. Step, step, careful. Her breath came in tight gasps. The air was thin and biting cold. The horses labored, and so did she.

At the next blow she would climb back in. But they might not stop before the summit, and she had to keep on. It would be humiliating to stop Quillan now. What was she thinking? Didn’t she recall how it had been to walk this before, when Dom gave out and couldn’t carry her? Did she want to pass out in front of Quillan and show her weakness?

Nonsense. She would not pass out. She was acclimated. She only had to . . . Her foot slipped, then the other. One hand clung to the harness, one swung wildly as her feet did a dance beneath her. Jack jerked his head, and she lost hold, coming down hard at his hooves. Sam jumped about, barking.

The horse balked sideways. Beside him, Jock shied. Quillan hollered, fighting to hold them steady, but the wheelers had lost hold and the wagon slid backward. Quillan clung, digging with his boot heels and urging the horses to fight. Jock lowered his head and threw his shoulders into the harness. But it wasn’t enough.

The wagon slid into the embankment and came to a grinding stop. Shoulders heaving with deep, hard breaths, Quillan dropped his head to Jock’s. Then he turned and fiercely gauged her. Carina sat in the road where she’d landed. She already felt chagrined. Did he think his anger would help?

He stomped toward her and jerked her to her feet. “Thank you for your help. Now will you kindly get into the wagon and let me do my job?”

“I’m not hurt, thank you. It’s kind of you to care.”

He gripped her upper arms. “If you’d cracked your backside, it’d be no more than you deserved. I could have lost my team and wagon.”

She swallowed hard. It was true. He had a right to his anger. But her own asserted itself. She hadn’t meant to cause trouble, only to help. “And what if I’d been on the wagon, too?” Would he worry about her welfare?

“Then, Carina, we wouldn’t be in this fix.” He tugged her arm and manhandled her into the box. “Now stay there.” Sam climbed up sheepishly beside her.

She felt like a scolded child. Who was he to order her so? She was Carina Maria DiGratia . . . Shepard. Carina folded her arms sullenly across her chest. She’d given him the right, stood in front of him, and the judge, and God, and agreed to obey this man. Bene. She didn’t have to like it.

It took him an hour to dig the wagon out and go over it for damage. The physical exertion kept him from wringing her neck; his native control held the words in check. Now he finally had his team and wagon back where they’d been before Carina decided to help.

He growled an oath under his breath, then took Jock’s head and started them forward. He should have been to the summit by now. Any more of Carina’s interference and they’d spend another night on the mountain. He glanced at her sulking on the box, then turned his attention to the job at hand.

Slowly and carefully he led the horses over the ground they’d covered before the slide, then on up toward the crest. He made himself relax. For the horses’ sake he took long, slow breaths and willed the anger from his system.
Just don’t think about her
. That was the ticket.
Just don’t even think about her
.

Up. Onward. A turn to the right and back to the left. A little more. A little more. The clatter of hooves on ice muffled under the snow as the slope leveled. He kept pulling. The snow was only six inches. They could cut through. “Come on, Jock.”

It rose to a foot’s depth, but light and powdery enough to manage still. The horses needed to blow, and to be truthful, so did he. Quillan stopped fighting. He let go the harness and dropped his arm to his side. For several minutes he just stood there, waiting for his breathing to slow.

The scene ahead was untouched, unmarred. No stage would pass through in a storm. He looked up at the white woolly blanket above and smelled snow. The wind blasted his face. With his sleeve, he wiped the sweat beneath his hat brim and swallowed the film of residue that had formed inside his mouth from the exertion.

He walked back to the wagon and opened the tarp, levered the water barrel lid, and dipped a cup of icy water. He drank. Then he watered and fed the horses. Not too much. Just enough to bolster them for the next leg. He didn’t speak to Carina. Then they started again.

They kept on until the snow reached three feet in depth. He took the shovel and cleared a way, then stowed the shovel and led the horses on. Again he took the shovel and cleared. He was working through four feet of snow now. It had drifted in the windbreaks.

He turned to stow the shovel, but Carina stood at Jock’s head. With a word and a tug, she urged the team forward as far as he had dug. Quillan leaned on the shovel and eyed her. She didn’t flinch and she didn’t speak. He turned and dug, then heard Carina bringing the team behind him.

It was level, and it was snow. She was probably capable of handling such a task without disaster. In that way they made good progress. The snow evened out to two feet in depth and he stopped shoveling. He stowed the shovel and took the harness from her. She walked around and climbed into the wagon without a word.

It tugged him inside. He should thank her. . . . But he looked grimly forward and led the team on toward the first downward slope. He raised his hat and forked his hair back, ascertaining the conditions ahead. It was a steep decline, snow over ice. He had a full load, nowhere near the tonnage of machinery he sometimes hauled but enough to give the horses trouble.

He hadn’t yet equipped his wheelers with the sharp steel spikes on their shoes called caulks. But he did have the chain. Quillan nodded to himself. He’d rough-lock the wagon. Removing the chain from where he’d draped it in readiness, he brought it to the rear wheel. He wrapped the wheel with the links square in cross-section, then fastened it to another chain connected to the front axle.

Carefully he led the team forward until the rear wheel locked. He checked the tightness, then climbed up onto the box and took up the reins. He could feel Carina’s eyes on him and turned. “Keep an eye on the chain. If the rough-lock breaks, we’re in for a wild ride.”

She looked down at the chain and back. “How does it work?”

“The chain grips the snow. The wheel won’t turn. Makes it hard to pull even downhill.” He slapped the reins and the horses started forward. They inched down the hill, the wheelers putting their backs into both pulling and holding the weight of the wagon back. The leaders maneuvered under Quillan’s guidance.

At the first leveling Quillan let them blow. He saw Carina’s shoulders relax and realized she was as tense as he. He jumped down and checked the chains all along their length. A broken chain could mean disaster. He stopped beside the box and reached up. Gripping Carina’s waist, he swung her down. “Can you make us some lunch? I’m going to scout ahead, see how the road looks.”

She nodded.

That was settled, but . . . He hooked his hands onto his hips. “Thanks for leading the team while I shoveled.”

Her eyes were darkly luminous, sucking him in. “You’re welcome.”

His steps away were firm and purposeful.

Carina threw up her hands. How was she supposed to make lunch with no stove and no pot and no . . . She turned suddenly and searched the roadside with her eyes. Everything was changed in the snow. But it couldn’t be far. It was just past the summit when her mule Dom had taken ill and she had shouldered his load.

She pressed her palms to her temples trying to remember, to recognize the tree she had thought would be a landmark for her to find the things she left there. Was it that pine by the bend where Quillan was just turning? She took the shovel and followed, then stopped. She would need a fire.

Quickly she dug down to the dirt in the middle of the road, then assembled the wood and got a fire started. The wood Quillan brought had stayed dry under the tarp, and it was well seasoned to light quickly and burn well. She stoked it into a steady blaze that would hold until she got back. Then she went in search of her treasures.

Amazingly, they were there. The iron pot and lid and the dented kettle salvaged from her wagonload of goods that Quillan had sent down the mountain. She dug the lid free from the snow and held it up exuberantly.
Grazie, Signore!

By the time Quillan returned from scouting, she had sausages sizzling in the iron pot with garlic and onions. Quillan strode up, taking in the scene, arms slack and puffs of white bursting from his parted lips. He was weary, she could tell. Would he be pleased with her efforts?

The iron pot sat directly on the coals and she worked quickly with the stick to turn the sausages and keep them from blackening. It was the best she could do without the proper utensils. All she had found was a leather-sheathed knife under the driver’s side of the box. That worked well enough for slicing the onions, but little more.

It wasn’t perfect, but since coming to Crystal she’d learned to take what she could get and make the most of it. Now she used the edge of a blanket to grip the pot and remove it from the fire. It hissed and steamed when she set it on the snowy road. Only then did she brave Quillan’s eyes.

They held a mixture of wonder and irritation. But he swallowed whatever complaint had been forming and squatted next to the fire, holding his gloved hands to the heat. “I had thought we’d move on.”

“You can’t keep on as you’ve been without something nourishing.”

He jerked his jaw toward the pot. “Meaning that?”

She nodded. “But I can’t find utensils.”

“I didn’t bring any. All that stuff is stowed in my tent.”

And where is your tent?
she wanted to ask.
Where do you stay when
you’re away from me?

“I thought we’d do with olives and cheese. I didn’t know you meant to cook.” He looked sharply at the pot melting a puddle in the snow. “Is that the pot . . . ?”

She smiled. “I could only carry it so far. Dom wouldn’t walk with iron pots and Dickens banging his sides.” She rolled the sausages with the stick to cool the undersides.

Still in his squat, Quillan rested his forearms across his knees. “And it just happened to be waiting here.”

“No. I buried it next to that tree.” She waved her arm to indicate the one she meant.

“What a coincidence.”

She raised her eyes from the pot. “Not coincidence.”

“What, then?”

“God.”

It was the wrong thing to say. She saw that at once in the lowering of his brows, the tensing of his hands. Heard it in what he said next.

“God. He just had that pot right near where we stopped so that you could dig it up and make this meal.”

“Something like that.”

Quillan stood. He rubbed his thighs with his fire-warmed gloves. “Are we going to eat or not?”

She stabbed the stick into one of the sausages, releasing an oily red juice and spicy fragrant steam. But not so much steam that it would burn him. The sausages were cooling quickly in the cold air. She held up the stick.

He took it. “What do you call this?”

“Salsiccia in una sacchetta
. Sausage on a stick.”

He almost smiled. He wanted to. But he would lose face. He was not so different from
un uomo Italiano
. She could handle him if he just gave her the chance.

Quillan bit into the sausage on the stick. Steam erupted into his nostrils as he pierced the skin and sank his teeth into the dense ground meat. It burst into his mouth, a strong, spicy flavor, mellowed with garlic and the onions that lay limp and browned in the pot. He closed his eyes and allowed the sensation to fill and overload his tongue. He chewed slowly, deliberately, eking every ounce of flavor before surrendering it to his throat.

Then he opened his eyes and realized Carina had seen it all. She was more dangerous than a rattler in July, as Cain . . . It hit the pit of his stomach like a boot.
As Cain used to say
, he’d almost thought. Used to say. Cain. The pain came, fresh and piercing. He turned away, ate the sausage in a hurry, and stabbed the stick into the pot for another.

She was right. The food would sustain him better for what lay ahead. It would be slow going and he was hungry. Carina had scrounged another stick from somewhere and ate deliberately. He’d hurt her. He’d given her nothing for all her work, not even his thanks.

He yanked off his glove and dipped his hand into the pot. With bare fingers he scooped the onions and brought them to his mouth. Let her think him a fiend. The sooner she realized they had no place together, the sooner she’d leave him in peace.

BOOK: Sweet Boundless
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