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Authors: Kristen Heitzmann

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

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BOOK: Sweet Boundless
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For a long while only the rumble of the bed, the clop of hooves, and the creak of wheels and harness broke the silence. Quillan settled into the rhythm of it, anticipating the long hours of solitude. No, not solitude, not this time. At least it didn’t seem that she would chatter.

Another sideways glance showed her gazing through the fog with a slightly pensive expression. Good. She could content herself with her thoughts as he would his. He toyed with several lines from Byron’s
Prisoner of Chillon
, then remembered he had promised to lend it to Carina when he’d finished with it. He had never done so.

He’d taken it with him to Leadville, and it was there in his tent even now. Unless the tent had been raided by someone literate enough to appreciate his collection. Oh, well, she had her own books. He’d helped haul them up the mountainside, where he’d put them over with her wagon. What if that chance encounter had never happened?

He returned his thoughts to Byron and left them there, wandering the lines and phrases he’d already committed to memory. It was something he’d trained himself to do since he was young and many of his favorite books had been confiscated. He pictured Mrs. Shepard’s face, white with fury whenever she discovered his disobedience. Then the books would be taken, but she couldn’t remove them from his mind.

So he’d learned to memorize as he read. Then when the books were found and destroyed, he felt a grim satisfaction rather than the previous devastation. He’d learned the books of the Bible he was ordered to learn, but they never suspected he carried the others in his mind as well.

After a steady two hours, Quillan looked ahead and saw the fog tearing apart as the road climbed. He dared to hope. It could go either way. Sometimes the cloud sat in a gulch and just above it the skies were clear. With any luck it would be that way now. Carina, too, seemed to have noticed the change. She leaned slightly forward, staring ahead.

The road wound upward and the sky brightened. Quillan’s chest relaxed when he saw ragged swaths of blue in the sky just ahead. When they reached the section of road that passed Wasson Lake, the sun jumped out and ignited the white needles of the pines and the grasses along the shore.

The lake turned a brilliant blue and Quillan watched it with satisfaction as they passed by, far enough away to catch the reflection of the peaks in its expanse and take in the entire vista. He noted Carina’s gaze, riveted. Did she remember his teaching her to shoot on the shores of that lake? Of course she did. It was vivid for him.

“It looks like we’ll have clear skies after all.” It surprised him that he was the one to break the silence.

“I wasn’t worried.”

“You don’t know enough to be.” He didn’t say it to provoke her. It was the simple truth. Until you’ve experienced the alpine weather, you couldn’t imagine its deadliness. Even in early September.

They were climbing toward the summit, and he kept the team at an even pace. Lung fever had claimed many a horse pushed too hard for the altitude. He never expected more of his team than he knew they could manage. Now with a very light load, they could hold this pace and blow once they reached the top. Coming back with a full bed, they’d have to let them rest every quarter mile near the summit.

They continued to climb, the road hitching back and forth as the grade grew steeper and more treacherous. A keen breeze stung his face and the air sparkled suddenly with a snow shower under the blue, sunlit sky.

Beside him, Carina’s breath caught, and she released it with an exultant sigh. “It’s beautiful.
Com’ è bello. Stupendo
.” Her voice was a breathless rush.

Quillan turned. He hadn’t heard her language for some time. He liked how it sounded when she wasn’t using it to abuse him.

“How can it snow with no clouds in the sky?” She stared upward with wonder.

“At this altitude the moisture freezes without necessarily accumulating into clouds.”

“It doesn’t look real. I think it’s stardust.” She pulled her hands from her pockets and raised open palms to the glittering flakes.

Quillan smiled, then rubbed Sam’s ear when he wiggled uncertainly. “Don’t mind her, Sam. She gets some wild notions.”

Carina closed her eyes, ignoring him. Quillan smiled at that, too. Two months ago she would have thrown an insult in return. Now she tried to appear as though she neither heard nor cared. She opened her mouth and held her tongue to the flakes.

He caught his own tongue between his side teeth to keep from laughing. “Don’t breathe it in, Carina. It’s too sharp to take directly into your lungs that way. You’ll risk pneumonia.”

She closed her mouth and eyed him. “I want to stop at the top.”

“We’ll stop. The horses need a blow.”

“Blow?”

“Rest. Catch their breath.”

They climbed in silence as the sparkling shower thickened without threat. Quillan navigated the road to the highest point, then reined in the horses. Carina jumped down, and he watched her stride to the edge of the road, spread her arms wide, and holler, “Grazie, Signore!”

The air was biting as she hollered, then drew yet more air into her throat to holler again. She believed Quillan that it was unhealthy, but she couldn’t contain what she felt. “Grazie, Dio!” This beauty, this stupendous, glorious beauty. How could she not thank God for it?

She dropped her arms and looked down from the summit of the pass. Far below, the river rushed in a narrow, rocky bed. She grasped her hands below her chin and murmured her thanks again.
Gesù
had removed the fear of heights when she surrendered her soul to His keeping and forgave Divina, who had, wittingly or no, given her the fear. God had healed her, and she basked in the scene spread beneath her—something she would not have dared look at four months ago. She felt Quillan at her side.

His touch was cautious on her elbow. “Are you okay?”

She nodded. “Sì.”

“I thought you had a problem with heights.”

“I did.” She stooped and pried a stone loose. Cupping it in her palm, she threw it out over the edge and watched it soar down, down, until it was lost in the landscape.

“You don’t seem dizzy to me.”

“I’m not.” But it was too personal to share why with him. Father Charboneau, yes—but Quillan? He would laugh, scoff, and not believe her. She turned and walked to the black lead horse on the right. The breath from its nostrils turned white in the chilled air. She stroked its muzzle. “Have a good rest, Jack. You’ve done well.”

The horse nuzzled her. Laughing, she walked around to Jock and encouraged him with a pat. “Such strong leaders. You know the road, eh?”

The two Clydesdales behind the blacks towered over her, tremendous specimens of muscle with shaggy hooves. Their eyes were mild on either side of the white streak down their muzzles.

“What is this one called?”

“Socrates.”

She touched his shoulder, stroked it with her palm. “And that one is Plato?”

Looking at her over the harness that separated the two pairs, Quillan shook his head. “Nope. Homer.”

So he had replaced his first pair of Clydesdales after the flood. Alan Tavish had told her their names, Peter and Ginger. She liked this pair better. “How long do they rest?”

“Awhile.”

It was nonspecific, but maybe it would be long enough to work the pain out of her back. Coming up to Crystal, she’d driven a small wagon with a deep seat to support her while she drove. This freight wagon was a dreadful ride. How did he stand it so long, so many days at a stretch?

Surreptitiously, she rubbed her lower back and walked along the wagon, hoping Quillan didn’t see. The beauty had driven away the pain, but now it returned. She tried to focus on the brilliant gold aspens with white trunks that stood out among the tall pine spires.

The snow still flew in sparkling waves. She was cold; her ears ached with it. She climbed up and pulled the shawl from her carpetbag. She tied it over her head as Quillan paced, working the kinks from his legs. She watched him, wondering what he thought, what he did on these drives all alone.

He caught her looking, and for a moment their gaze locked. Then he headed for the wagon. “Don’t get down. We’ll go on now.”

Carina sighed too softly for him to hear as she settled into her space. Sam climbed up beside her. Quillan took the reins and gid-dapped the horses. Already the ache started in her back again and her seat was no better. Bene. She’d asked to come. She wouldn’t whine. The horses would need to blow again—soon, she prayed. To distract herself from the discomfort, she took
Silas Marner
from the bag.

Quillan glanced over. “What’s that?”

“George Eliot.
Silas Marner
. Have you read it?”

He shook his head.

“Shall I read it aloud?”

“If you want.”

She settled back and opened the book. It was hard to focus with the tiny snowflakes still swirling, but she held the shawl to block most of it and began. Quillan kept his gaze on the road, his expression fixed and a little fierce. The wind picked up, and she had to read loudly to be heard. She paused often to catch her breath and soothe her voice.

During one pause, Quillan brushed the side of his face with his sleeve. “He has an interesting style.”

“It’s a woman.”

“I meant the author.”

“I know.”

He turned briefly. “Named George?”

Carina shrugged. “What’s a name? If I chose to be called Charles, would I be any less what I am?”

He eyed her a moment. “How do you know?”

“I can tell. Certain phrases, certain . . . insights.”

“Well, of course, male authors have no insights.”

She shrugged. “They’re different.” She picked up the book and shielded it once again from the sparkling snow dust.

Her voice grew hoarse and her fingers raw from holding the book, but she sensed an intensity in Quillan that kept her reading. It was as though he more than listened; he absorbed her words. If he didn’t hear her clearly, he asked her to repeat it. And she did, sometimes twice before he got it exactly.

But the cold was intense and she started to waver. It was a tremendous relief when he stopped once again to let the horses blow. Instead of jumping down, she set the book aside and dug her fingers back into her pockets. They throbbed with cold, sending pain up her forearms.

Quillan came around and reached up for her. Before she could pull her hands free, he’d gripped her waist and swung her down from the box. She fell against him on unsteady legs, and he caught, then released her.

“We’ll eat here.”

They had come down far enough that the snow shower had ceased and the temperature had risen a little. Would he build a fire and cook something hot? Did he expect her to? He unfastened the tarp and reached into the bed. He retrieved a sack and, from it, pulled biscuits and jerked beef, along with a couple of dried apples. It looked as unappetizing as anything she’d yet eaten in Crystal.

He must have seen her thoughts. “No, it’s not a banquet. But it’s how we do it on the road.”

“Can’t we light a fire and—”

“Not if you want to make it back tonight. This is the quick part. It’ll be slower with a full load.”

Trying not to show the anguish that thought caused her, she took the food he offered. “How much longer to Fairplay?”

“An hour. Unless the wind picks up. We can’t keep the pace against a head wind.” He stooped and gave the dog the same fare as they.

Carina bit the hard, dry biscuit. It tasted like dust. No flavor at all, only hard, powdery chunks on her tongue. “Is this really food, or do you just pretend?”

That earned his rogue’s smile. “I’ll give Mrs. Barton your compliments.”

“Surely she can do better than this.” She waved the biscuit with disdain.

“Not with hardtack. It’s made to keep, to withstand the journey.”

She forced herself to swallow. “I could caulk my walls with it.”

“No doubt.” He reached in again and brought out a small water barrel, then retrieved a tin cup. He dipped and handed the cup her way.

She drank greedily, washing the biscuit residue from her mouth and throat, then noticed he was waiting. She handed back the cup and he dipped water for himself. It seemed strangely intimate when he brought the same cup to his lips. His throat worked up and down as he swallowed; the shadow of beard was dark halfway down his neck. To her knowledge, he hadn’t shaved since yesterday.

He looked wild and free, and she tried to picture him in the suit he’d worn for their wedding. Seeing him now in the buckskin coat and woolen shirt and jeans, she couldn’t envision it. Besides, she’d been dazed and wonderstruck at her wedding.

This was real. This was her husband, this man of the road. What would it feel like to kiss his beard-roughened face? Looking away, she put the jerky into her mouth and gripped it with her teeth. Wiggling it up and down while yanking, she bit through and chewed.

What would Mamma say to such fare? But then, what would Mamma say to any of it? A wash of guilt swept her. She hadn’t written in two months. Mamma must be sick with worry. But Carina didn’t know how to tell her or Papa that she’d married Quillan Shepard instead of Flavio Caldrone, her distant cousin and childhood love.

Quillan was an outsider. He was not Italian, not highborn, not Catholic, and certainly not one Papa would have chosen. Was he one she would have chosen had circumstance not driven her to it? Yes, her heart cried. But she knew it would never have happened anywhere but Crystal.

She fought the jerky for another bite. She was losing her appetite. She gnawed the bite, then the dried apple. Then she drank another cup of water. They’d eaten the whole meal standing, but the thought never occurred to her to sit. To be up on her legs, to be off her backside— this was unspeakable relief.

When she finished her drink, she walked briskly back and forth along the wagon while Quillan fed and watered the horses. A raven cawed overhead, swooping upward to the tip of a pine heavy with cones. The sun was slightly past the zenith, and he’d said in an hour they’d be in Fairplay.
Just don’t think of the trip back
, she told herself.

But then the trip back was the whole point of this. During their trip back they’d be carrying her wonderful supplies, the things she would need to make the food for which Crystal would clamor. How long would it take to build the extra room? She pondered this as they drove, picturing it all and trying to tally wood and proportions and cost. Quillan hadn’t asked her to read again. And though she was enjoying the story, she didn’t offer. The wind would have sucked her breath away.

BOOK: Sweet Boundless
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