Smoke River Bride(6)By: Lynna Banning
Thad tipped his hat, backed into the hallway and turned to leave. “Whatever happens, it should be interesting.” He tossed the remark over his shoulder.
Leah jerked as if bitten by a horsefly. “Wait!” she called. “Your gloves.” She pressed them into his large hand. To her surprise she found his fingers were trembling.
In that moment she guessed what lay beneath his gruff exterior. Underneath, he was as frightened as she was. But, being a man, he would never, never admit it. Never show fear, Father had said.
When the door closed behind Mr. MacAllister, she let her heavy wool coat slide off her shoulders onto the scuffed hardwood floor. She undressed by the light seeping through the lacy curtain, poured water into the basin and rapidly sponged off the travel dust and soot from every inch of her body. Then she shook out her silk tunic and trousers and hung them in the armoire along with her coat.
Ravenously hungry, she unwrapped her last dried bean cake, pulled on her pink silk sleeping robe and crawled into the welcoming bed.
She had been fortunate in America thus far—except for those terrifying days imprisoned at Madam Tang’s. Leah had finally escaped in the horse-drawn laundry cart that came each morning and found her way to a church. Now, after a day and a night on the train from San Francisco to Portland, and another half day to Smoke River, here she was. Tired to the bone, but safe in the biggest, softest bed she had ever slept on. God was surely looking out for her.
She stretched luxuriously, nibbled the edge of the hard bean cake and listened to the street noises below her window. Horses clipclopped down the main road, harnesses jingling. Dishes clattered in the restaurant across from the hotel. Men’s raucous voices drifted from the saloon next door. Oh, it all sounded so…American! What a strange and wonderful land this was!
Thank you, Lord, for this place of safety and for this man. She would be a good wife to him.
Nodding over the uneaten bean cake, she curled into a ball and fell asleep listening to the sound of a woman’s voice from the saloon below, singing a song about a train and a round mountain.
Seven-year-old Teddy MacAllister looked up at his father accusingly. “Where ya been, Pa? I had to shoo the chickens inside the henhouse all by myself, and keep the fire goin’, and…” His voice trailed off. His father was not listening, as usual.
“What? Oh, I’ve been in town, laddie. Tomorrow I’ll have a surprise for you.”
Teddy’s blue eyes lit up. “A horse, Pa? Is it a horse of my own?”
Thad regarded his son with eyes that saw only a small part of the boy’s eagerness. “Nope, not a horse. Something better.”
“Ain’t nuthin’ better than a horse,” the boy grumbled.
But Thad did not hear. He busied himself at the woodstove in the kitchen, heating the kettle of beans he’d set to soak before he’d left to meet the train. His gut felt as if it were tearing in two directions. On the one hand, he wanted to give Teddy someone who could fill the gap left by his mother’s death. Someone to keep house and bake cookies and knit socks for the boy.
On the other hand, he did not want Miss Cameron, no matter how capable or understanding she might be, to replace Hattie. Thad and she had grown up together in Scotland, and later, when he had settled on the Oregon frontier, she’d come out from New England to marry him. Her upbringing hadn’t prepared her for the hardships on a ranch; in fact, she had disliked living so far away from the life she had grown used to. But Hattie had said she loved him, and she had given him a son.
Teddy dawdled near the dry sink, still stacked full of plates and cups from last night’s supper. “Kin we have biscuits?”
“What? Biscuits take mixin’ up.”
“Then kin I mix ’em? I learned real good from Matt, uh, Marshal Johnson,” he amended. “I even know how to bake them on a flat rock!”
“Got a good oven right here.” Thad thumped one leg of the nickel-trimmed stove with his boot. “Build up the fire some, Teddy. Need these beans to cook.”
“Yes, Pa.” He moved to the wood box near the back door, stacked an armload of small oak logs along one arm and staggered to the stove.
“Guess what?” he said as he chunked one piece into the fire box.
Thad didn’t answer.
Thad spooned some bacon grease into his bowl of flour and stirred it up, paying scant attention to the boy. Usually, he thought about his dead wife, or worried about his new wheat field—was some insect nibbling the shoots? Would the snow stunt the sprouts? But this evening, he couldn’t get his mind off tomorrow morning.