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Backwoods Brides, Book Two
By Marcia Gruver
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Marcia Gruver
All rights reserved.
Pearl River, on the Natchez Trace, June 1, 1882
Mariah Bell reached the bottom landing, stumbling under the weight of the most precious cross she'd ever had to bear. Balancing her father's lifeless body as best she could, she reeled across the kitchen to the door she'd propped wide with her boots, a yawning gateway to the backyard and the early morning darkness.
A breeze laden with the smell of magnolias met her at the stoop. The fragrant gust wrapped around her face, and her labored breaths sucked in the scent of the blooms. Mixed with the odor of Father's pipe tobacco and the vile stench of his illness, the cloying wind threatened to turn her stomach.
Searching blindly with her toes, she found the top step then allowed the drag of her load to shift her forward and over the threshold. Heart pounding, her panting gasps a roar in her ears, Mariah tottered briefly at the edge of the second step.
Exhausted, she surrendered to the pull of the earth, and her trembling legs staggered wildly to the ground. When her bare feet touched the cold, wet grass, she glanced over her shoulder at the shaded windows of Bell's Inn and whispered a grateful prayer.
If one curious lodger peered out and caught her struggling along the hallway, knees bent beneath her unlikely burden, she'd be undone. With her clumsy gait and heavy tread, not to mention the squeaky step at the bottom of the stairs, it amazed her they hadn't.
"Just a little farther," Mariah whispered, a catch in her throat. "Almost there."
If she could get Father's remains secreted away without Mrs. Viola Ashmore, the most meddlesome woman in Mississippi, pressing her nose to an upstairs window, the unthinkable scheme might work.
Last night, the widow Ashmore—Miss Vee, as she liked to be called—had returned from her sister's down in Natchez. Her arrival threatened to ruin everything, and Mariah regretted the hasty decision to summon her home.
She trudged to the waiting wagon bed and eased Father down, her muscles straining from the effort to lower him gently. Clutching his nightshirt with determined fists, she lifted him aside to raise the tailgate.
Three months ago, toting him ten feet would've been impossible to imagine, despite her work-honed arms and sturdy Choctaw ancestry. Squinting in the moonlight at the dear face of the man who gave her life, his once burly frame reduced to a frail skeleton by the wasting disease, she bit off a cry of pain.
Not now, she ordered herself, choking on scalding tears. There'd be ample time for mourning once she hid the body. Covering up his disappearance would be another matter entirely.
From the time she'd leaned over Father's sickbed the night before to find him still and cold, she'd known exactly what to do. She sat at his bedside until the parlor clock struck three times, long past the hour when even the restless Miss Vee had doused her lamp.
Slipping inside the barn, she'd hitched Sheki to the wagon and loaded a shovel before pulling around to the door. The hard part, the dreaded part, had been carrying Father through the house. It took all the strength she could muster, of both body and soul, but somehow she'd managed.
Mariah reached over the tailgate and smoothed his hair. "Forgive me, Aki," she whispered. "It's the only way." Straightening, she wiped her eyes and steeled her trembling chin. She'd come this far, and she'd see it through.
Stealthy as a cat, she eased the back door shut, leaning inside at the last minute to snag her boots. Struggling, almost tripping, she pulled them on then crept to the rig.
The side springs moaned when Mariah climbed aboard. Wincing, she settled carefully onto the seat and lifted the reins, clucking her tongue at her little paint pony. Sheki eased forward, any noise from his hooves or the creaking wheels muffled by thick green tufts of damp summer grass.
Fearing a chance meeting with an approaching rider, Mariah avoided the road and crossed the backyard. She held her breath until the horse cleared the lawn and reached the bank of the river.
Sheki picked his way in the meager light, trudging down the yellow, sandy slope alongside the Pearl and into the welcoming shadows of a woody trail. Before the indigo brush and towering birch swallowed them whole, Mariah cast one last glance over her shoulder at the murky outline of the inn.
Just one more storm to brave. Searching the starlit sky with streaming eyes, she pleaded with God not to leave her to face it alone.
Mariah let the horse's nose guide them until they'd gone a fair piece upriver. Unable to bear the darkness another second, especially with her unsettling cargo, she lit the lantern and hung it from a post beside the foot brake.
Soon a swarm of flitting bugs joined the somber procession, dancing wildly around the swaying light. In a strange way, she welcomed their company.
They reached the high bluff overlooking the bend in the river before she allowed Sheki to slow his gait. Pulling up to the broad trunk of an oak, she tugged on the reins and brought her makeshift funeral bier to a halt next to her mother's grave.
In the scanty glow of the lamp, she squinted to read the inscription, though she knew every word by heart: ONNAT MINTI BELL, WIFE OF JOHN, MOTHER OF MARIAH. "The morning light" was a fitting name for her mother. Daylight had gone from Mariah's life the day she died.
Lifting the shovel from the wagon, she glanced at the sky. Dawn would wait for no man, not even the beloved proprietor of Bell's Inn. Drawing a shaky breath, she set to work digging a deep hole beside Mother's humble resting place.
Once she laid him in the ground, swaddled in a soft quilt and facing east as he'd requested, Mariah had a moment's hesitation. It felt wrong to be the only mourner for a man like John Coffee Bell. He deserved better.
Biting her lip so hard she tasted blood, she snatched the shovel. Careful to look away while the dirt rained down on her father, she quickly covered him before she changed her mind.
Hiding the site as best she could, she scattered rocks and dead leaves over the patchwork of grass she'd carefully pieced together over the busted clods. Her efforts might fool the casual eye, but it would take a heavy rain to settle the earth and root the grass again. Many days could pass before her secret was safe.
Unable to walk away and leave the spot unmarked, she hefted a sun-bleached stone and carried it to the grave. Sinking to her knees with an anguished cry, she bowed and placed a tender kiss on the strand of painted beads around her neck, a precious treasure placed there by her mother.
"I'll keep the promise, Mama. I swear on my life." What Father hadn't managed, for all his good intentions, Mariah was destined to finish. Pulling off the wooden beads, she gave them one last squeeze before tucking them beneath his unlikely tombstone.
Against the night sky, the oak tree stretched welcoming arms around her parents' graves. Ancient mourning songs crowded Mariah's throat as she draped her shawl around her head with trembling fingers. Clutching her stomach, she doubled over and wailed her lonesome grief in time with the oak's moaning boughs.
* * *
Reddick "Tiller" McRae stiffened and leaned forward in the saddle. Plodding hooves and the steady creak of wagon wheels echoed through the pine and hardwood forest, stirring his heartbeat. From his perch high above the Natchez Trace, his darting gaze watched to see who rounded the bend.
As the rig pulled into view, Tiller rolled the kinks from his neck and dried his palms on the legs of his britches. Some things never got easier.
Ducking beneath a sagging branch, he spurred his horse and rode downslope to the muddy, sunken road. Gritting his teeth, he forced a twinkle to his eyes and a winsome smile to his lips, two tricks he'd gotten plenty good at.
The white-haired old coot, slumped in the seat of the cargo wagon, shot upright and went for his gun faster than a greased thunderbolt, training it at Tiller's pounding heart. "Hold up there, stranger," he growled through shriveled gums. "State your business, and make it quick."
Both hands to the sky, Tiller widened his grin. "Relax, old-timer. I'm as harmless as a snaggletooth viper. Unarmed to boot." Both statements true enough on the surface.
The man's tongue flicked out to swipe his bottom lip, and his jaw shifted to the side. "You take me for a fool, don't you, boy? Nobody rides the Devil's Backbone unarmed." His eyes narrowed, and his gaze tracked up the rise to the shadowy brush. "Or alone."
Tiller chuckled. "It's been many years since this rutted trail was known as the Devil's Backbone, sir. Not since Robinson Road pulled the starch right out of her spine." He winked. "More to the point, you're riding alone."
One gnarled finger tapped the pearl handle of the six-barreled Remington revolver. "Your eyesight's failing you, son. My little friend here don't talk much, but he's pretty fair company in a pinch." His flashing stare demanded answers. "If you like Robinson Road so much, what are you doing out here?"
Slapping his thigh, Tiller laughed with delight in his most charming and persuasive manner—and if anyone could be charming and persuasive, it was Tiller McRae. "You've got me there, mister." He nodded toward the rising band of orange sky on the horizon. "I guess a fellow has to get up earlier than daybreak to pull one on you."
A smug grin lifted the wrinkled cheeks. "You got that right. Now, commence to telling me what you're up to a'fore I dot your eye with this pistol."
Paying careful attention to the man's surprisingly steady hand, Tiller raised the brim of his hat and scratched his head. "Truth be told, sir, I'm a little embarrassed to say."
His new friend sat forward on the seat, his rheumy eyes bulging. "You'll be a sight more embarrassed with air holes in that Stetson and a part in your taffy-colored hair."
Bright smile waning, Tiller swallowed hard, resisting the urge to glance over his shoulder at the empty trail. What was taking them so almighty long? "All right, mister. Keep your suspenders fastened and I'll explain." Grimacing, Tiller shifted in the saddle while his mind scrambled for a likely account. Quirking one brow at his edgy audience, he released a shaky laugh. "The sad truth is I got hitched a couple of days ago. Up Carthage way, where I'm from." He cocked his head and beamed a sweet smile. "Married the girl of my dreams."
"Married?" The saggy eyelids fluttered. "You don't say."
Tiller drooped his shoulders and sighed. "Our bliss was short-lived, I'm afraid. We'd barely doused the lights in our bedchamber when her brothers knocked down the door. They dragged her from my loving arms, kicking and screaming, and carted her out." He stared off in the distance and shook his head. "Still in her dressing gown."
The gun barrel dropped a quarter inch. The old man gulped and leaned closer, curiosity burning in his eyes. "What'd they go and do that for?"
Tiller cut his gaze to the ground. "Her pa in Jackson ain't so fond of me. He didn't approve of our union, so we ran off together. The scoundrel sent his ill-mannered sons to fetch her."
A long, slow whistle followed. "That ain't hardly right, young fella' ... not with you hitched to the gal. Why didn't you stop 'em?"
"I tried my best, sir, but her three brothers are as stout as oaks. I was no match for the burly brutes. They loaded up Lucinda and whisked her away before I could catch my breath."
"Lucinda, huh? That's a real nice name."
Tiller waved his hand across the sky, as if painting a picture he saw in his mind. "I can still see her delicate arms reaching for me ... tears shining in those big, doe eyes."
The old man lowered the revolver to his lap. "Now that's a dirty shame. The poor little thing. What do you plan on doing about it, son?"
Sitting tall in the saddle, Tiller squared his shoulders. "I'm bound to bring her home, if I have to waltz clear to Jackson and dance right up to her daddy's door."
"That's tellin' him, boy!"
Tiller nudged back his hat. "So you see ... that's why I'm fool enough to brave the Trace alone. I'm on a quest to rescue my darlin' bride. I figured on shaving some time by cutting through on this old stretch of road. Might even catch them before they make it home."
Softness eased the lines of the traveler's face as he holstered the Remington. "I was engaged once myself. To the sweetest little thing this side of the Mississippi Delta." He worked his jaw, trying to contain his grin. "But her pa was a horse's rear end." Giving in to mirth, he beamed and lifted his chin. "Tell you what, boy. I'm headed to Jackson, myself. Why don't we ride on down together?"
Tiller angled his head. "You mean it, mister?"
"Well, sure I do." His toothless smile seemed childlike. "The good Lord makes fine company on a long trip, but it's nice talking to a fella' wearing skin for a change." He motioned to the rear of the wagon. "Tie that animal to the back and sit up here with me. Two brains ciphering your problem may hit on a plan to bring your little wife home." He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "You ain't mentioned if you're a religious man, but if you'd like, I'll ask God to help you out." He winked. "Him and me are fairly close friends, you see."
Shame—Tiller's constant companion of late—surged in the pit of his stomach. He stole a quick look at the line of brush and young magnolias on the opposite side of the gulch. Except for a few leaves caught in a sudden breeze, the trees were still. "Listen, old-timer"—Tiller nodded at the furrowed road winding in the distance—"maybe you'd best get on without me. It's not safe to lollygag for too long in these parts."
The stranger scooted over and patted the seat. "All the more reason for you to join me. Why, together we could fend off—" He swallowed the rest as his head jerked to the side.
A flurry of masked riders swept over the steep slope, bearing down on him like all wrath.
His mouth gaped in shock, and his palsied hand groped for his holster. Caught off guard, the old man's draw wasn't fast enough.
"Don't try it, grandpa," the lead rider's voice growled. "Twitch a finger, and you'll lose it."
Digging in his heels and yanking his reins to the side, Tiller bolted, the sound of gunfire and the old man's pleas ringing in his ears. At the top of the rise, a bullet slammed into his Stetson, spinning it into the air.
He wove through the woods alongside the road until he no longer heard the shouting voices of the ambushing men. Ducking into a clearing, he dismounted and secured the horse to a branch then plopped down on a fallen pine log.
With his arms hugging his head, he didn't hear a rider approaching, didn't realize he wasn't alone until someone tapped his shoulder.
Fire surged through his limbs. Fists clenched, his chin came up.
His oldest friend in the world, Nathan Carter, stood over him holding his hat. "I reckon this belongs to you," he said, passing Tiller the Stetson.
Tiller snatched his favorite hat, turning it over in his hands and poking his fingers through the bullet holes. "What were you thinking, Nathan? You cut it a little close that time, don't you think?"
Nathan's booming laughter flushed a covey of bobwhite quail. They scattered to the sky in a rush of brown speckled wings. "Don't you believe it, son. That bullet found its mark." He hitched up his pants. "We have to make it look good, don't we?"
Tiller tossed the hat at Nathan's feet. "You owe me thirty dollars."
Nathan grinned, his brown eyes dancing. "That shouldn't be a problem, once we split the take. The old buzzard was sitting on his life savings. Under his seat there was a fortune in—"
Tiller's hand shot up. "Spare the details."
Pushing long strands of his black hair behind his ears, Nathan smirked. "Ignorance makes you innocent, is that it? You don't seem to mind when you're sitting around patting a full belly."
With a devilish grin, he drew back and kicked. The Stetson sailed in the air, landing upside down in the cold, gray ashes of the campfire. "Tiller boy, the cost of new headgear seems a small price to pay for a lily-white conscience."
Tiller tensed. "Nate, that's enough."
Nathan slapped his shoulder. "After ten years, you're still not cut out for this game." He leaned close to Tiller's face. "Don't think I didn't see what you tried to do back there."
Warmth crawled up Tiller's neck. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, I think you do."
Noticing his hands wringing like a washerwoman's, Tiller clenched them and slid them along his trouser legs. "They didn't hurt that old man, did they? I mean ... he was all right when you left?"
Nathan gave a harsh laugh. "He'll have a sizable knot on his head, but I expect he'll live."
Excerpted from Bandit's Hope by Marcia Gruver. Copyright © 2011 Marcia Gruver. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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