Smoke River Bride(3)

By: Lynna Banning



“Snowy,” she interrupted. “I understand. It snows in China, too, Mr. MacAllister.”

He walked a slow circle around her. Huh. She’d blow over in a stiff wind. And he sure couldn’t see her down on her hands and knees scrubbing the kitchen floor. Or anything else, come to think on it.

“Miss Cameron, you don’t know how hard ranch life can be.”

She spun toward him. “I am not afraid of hard work. I fear only being alone and unprotected in a big city where I know no one.”

“Like San Francisco?” He was fishing, but he had to know something about her. “What scared you in San Francisco that wouldn’t scare you here in Smoke River?”

She was quiet for a long minute. “It was not safe in that city,” she said softly. “Especially for a Chinese girl. I…I had to get away.”

Thad frowned. Something didn’t add up. “How come?”

She twisted away from him so he couldn’t see her face. “When I left the ship, two men laid their hands on me. They wanted me to come with them. I showed them my papers, but they laughed and tore them up.”

“Good grief,” Thad muttered. “I never thought about…Sit down, Miss Cameron. Have some more tea.”

She sank back onto the stool at the counter and wrapped her slim fingers around her teacup. “Those men dragged me into a carriage, but I escaped through the other door and ran down an alley and kept running, but they caught me.”

“Did you get away?”

“No,” she said shortly. “Nothing happened to me before I got free, but I cannot go back, do you understand? Hard work does not frighten me.” She gave an involuntary shiver. “But bondage does.”

Thad took a long look at her thin shoulders, her creamy neck and the delicate-looking hands. She appeared small And kind of lost, like a kitten. The least he could do was give her a home. She could teach Teddy. And she could keep house and cook and…

“Charlie? Look after Miss Cameron for five minutes, will ya?”

Charlie poked his head out of the ticket window across the room. “Where ya’ goin’?”

“Up the street to the mercantile. Gotta get her some ranch duds.”

For the third time, Carl Ness dusted off the display of kerosene lamps, watching out the corner of his eye while Thad MacAllister pawed through boy-size flannel shirts and jeans. Too big for his seven-year-old son, Teddy; too small for any adult he’d ever seen in town.

“Find what yer lookin’ for, Thad?”

“Nope,” the tall Scotsman snapped.

“What are you lookin’ for, anyway?”

“Work clothes.”

“You hire somebody to help out at the ranch?”

Thad paused and gave the diminutive mercantile proprietor a hard look. “Yeah, you might say that.” He held up a blue plaid shirt with buttons down the front, then snagged two more—one red and one green—and piled them on top of the three pairs of dark denim jeans he’d laid over his forearm.

“Kinda small for a ranch hand,” Carl observed. He patted the pile of garments Thad laid on the counter.

“Yup.”

Carl just shook his head. “You know, gettin’ more than three words out of you since your wife…Well, you know. It’s like squeezing a hen’s egg. You press too hard and you end up with egg yolk all over your hand.”

“Yeah.”

Carl started to wrap up the shirts in brown paper. “Anything else, Thad?”

“Yeah. Bottle of brandy. Make it a big bottle.” Thad dropped some coins on the counter and gathered up his paper-wrapped parcels. He could hardly wait to see Miss Cameron’s reaction to his purchases. Maybe the sight of the rough work clothes would convince her ranch life could be a killer. It had killed Hattie, his wife. It could kill a delicate woman all too easily.

Leah sat huddled over her tea, watching the stationmaster behind the ticket cage. He could sell her a train ticket to…well, to anywhere. But where could she go? Not back to the city. Not to Portland, either, which was just another big city where she would know no one. One small town was probably as good as another, and here there was a man who noticed her heritage but acted as if he did not care much.

“Mr. Charlie?” she called across the room.

“Yes, miss? What can I do for you?”

“Is…” She could scarcely get the words out. “Is Mr. MacAllister a good man?”

“He’s the best kind there is, miss. Leastways he used to be.”

“What happened to him?”

“Lost his wife a year ago in a train wreck. Ain’t been the same since.”

“Is he…cruel or violent?”

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