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California November 1850
The jailor eyed Bridget Callahan with sterile blue eyes. "You carrying a weapon?"
"What?" she asked.
"Or anything else that would help him escape?"
"I just want to speak to the man, not hang beside him." The jailor nodded and led her across the deck of the prison brig Stafford, moored on the eastern bank of the American River. Stripped of all rope and sail, the ship wallowed in the mud like a sow, left to rot along with those poor souls locked belowdecks.
Bridget's nose wrinkled at the stench. Stone or wood, the housing didn't matter. Unwashed bodies, urine and filth smelled the same, both sides of the Atlantic.
Keep your family together, and the rest of the world can take care of itself. Her father always said as much.
Bridget set her jaw. Mary and Chloe were all she had left of her family. She would not lose them, as well.
The jailor descended the galley stairs, disappearing into the gloom. Bridget paused on deck as apprehension prickled her neck. Nothing on God's green earth could convince her to go down those stairs. Nothing, she thought, except her family dying by inches in the freezing cold.
She shifted her attention from the decking to the long, straight street leading east to the rolling hills she had crossed alone. Beyond stood the jagged ridge of mountains. Low clouds hung over the peaks. She knew what that meant. The granite teeth devoured her family and the snow buried them alive.
"What's keeping you?" called the jailor.
Perspiration erupted on her face and neck as she lowered one foot and then the next to the steep stairs. Below, small pinpoints of sunlight broke through the green deck, glass prisms setin the deck, casting the narrow hall in eerie shadow.
"He's got his own cell. Moved him aft from the brig to the second mate's quarters, just till the hanging."
She followed him down the corridor. He halted before a sturdy wooden door with bars set in a square opening at eye level.
"Where's me keys?" He fished in his overcoat for his ring and then fanned them to locate the right one.
She peered into the darkness beyond the bars.
"Keep back. He's had some to drink."
"You let your prisoners drink?"
"Started his last meal early. Asked for four bottles of whiskey and the mayor says he's to have them. Wants him to go to his Maker in this sorry state." The jailor turned to the darkness beyond the door. "Ellis, you awake?"
Bridget thought he sounded eager, but that made no sense. No one was anxious to die.
"No, you stupid bastard, you got a whole day left."
The condemned man cursed.
"Got a visitor. Miss Callahan. She got trapped in your mountains. Her family's still up there."
Another curse. "Go away."
The jailor leaned closer, letting her know without words that Ellis was not the only one drinking on board. "He don't like to talk about it."
She stepped forward and spoke into the gloom. "I've some questions."
"Go away, damn you."
The jailor grinned. "Ellis knows all about them mountains. Rescued some, but not all." He raked his keys across the bars. "Right, Ellis? Couldn't save your own kin?"
He'd lost his family to the Cascades. Her worst nightmare had happened to him. Is that why he had fallen so far?
The jailor banged on the bars with the iron ring. "But you made it, all right. Didn't you, Ellis?"
His captive muttered something unintelligible and the jailor chuckled as he retraced his steps, pausing before the narrow stairs.
"Enjoy your visit," he called, and disappeared up the ladder.
* * *
Cole heard Meredith's heavy step on the stairs. Was the woman gone, as well?
He clutched the smooth neck of the whiskey bottle and tipped it back, longing for the burn in his throat and the fire in his belly.
He released his grip and the bottle clunked against the bunk, then the floor, rolling in a circle before coming to rest.
Her voice drifted in from the cell door. She sounded young and Irish. His wife's people had come from the old country.
He squeezed his eyes closed tight as the guilt overcame him. His wifedead and gone while he still lived. Never should it be so.
Why had she left him? He should have died with her that day, but then he thought he might still save their daughter. He hadn't. The rage billowed inside him. Twenty-three-year-olds should not die in the snow.
"Mr. Ellis, my family is still up there."
"So's mine," he muttered.
What did she want from him? He was in here and she, out there. What month was it? Every damn day was the same in this miserable landno seasons, just mild days and warm nights. Angela would have loved it here.
"Can't tell winter from spring," he muttered.
"What was that?" she asked.
He didn't answer.
"Mr. Ellis, they say they can't make a rescue until February at the earliest. The food won't last that long. You've been there. You rescued fifteen people in November."
"I left more than I saved."
"But you saved some, Mr. Ellis. There are three more souls waiting."
"Not for me."
"You know how to reach them."
"Ah, is that all? Just wait until April and then walk straight up the trail. They'll be there, unless the wolves get at them."
He heard a small sound. Did she gasp? "They've only one ox and no flour. Mr. Ellis, do you understand?"
He did and his gut coiled in tight knots. He wanted to tell her to forget them, but he could not muster the words.
"Can you give me some notion on how to proceed?" asked the woman.
She made him remember. He reached for the whiskey. "Please, Mr. Ellis."
He paused before pulling the cork with his teeth. "If I tell you, will you go away?"
Silence. The little bit of baggage was considering his offer.
"If you answer all my questions."
A counteroffer. She was used to barter. He smiled, intrigued enough to lower the bottle.
"No man living can answer all a woman's questions, especially a man who's fall-down drunk. I'll give you five, then you scat."
She was quiet again, but finally, just when he had nearly forgotten she was there, she piped up again.
"Should I hire horses or mules?"
"Neither," he said.
Her small face pressed to the space between the bars of his door, showing him a sharp nose centered between two large eyes.
"I'm not following you," she said.
He hoped not, as he was traveling to the gallows. He bit back the sarcasm. His wife had never approved of that side of him.
"Pack animals mire in deep snow. Get snowshoes." Her fingers clutched the bars. He glimpsed thin, pale appendages and staggered to his feet. Since the prison ship didn't move, he assumed the rocking was entirely internal.
He lost his tenuous hold on his equilibrium and stumbled against the door. His hand gripped hers. The heat of her skin registered first, and then, the sweet fruity scent of her drifted into his world like a soft breeze through an orchard. Had she been eating oranges?
She didn't draw back at his touch and that surprised him, but not half so much as her next actionshe reached through the bars to capture his wrist. Her strong grip showed her vitality. If he didn't know better, he'd think she meant to drag him through that narrow gap and force him along on her mission. He could see the determination glowing in her green eyes and something else, something familiargrief. She mourned them already.
"I didn't think of snowshoes."
The woman leaned in to catch his next words. "And stay clear of the avalanche plane," he added. "How shall I know it?"
Cole couldn't keep his jaw from dropping. Had she walked right through it, unknowing?
The woman blinked at him, her brow wrinkled in concentration. She'd been up thereon his mountain. How had she escaped? What quality did she have that his wife had lacked?
Was it all luck? Was that what decided who lived and who died?
It was a question he'd asked himself more times than he could remember. Why had they died? Why had he lived?
Bridget tried to regain Ellis's attention. "I thought canned fruit might do them the most good." It was, in fact, what she most craved, along with bread, but she could think of no way to bring that.
"No, no. Jerked meat and dried fruit."
"But coffee and "
"Too heavy. Melt snow for drinking and bring a buffalo robe."
She would not have thought of that, either.
Bridget needed to learn all he knew, but minutes slipped by. This time tomorrow, he'd be dead and she'd be alone again.
It was a miracle she had survived her descent. She could not rely on luck on the return. This man had been there and backtwice. He knew things, things that she must understand if she was to succeed.
She needed more than words. She needed him.
Her next idea so shocked her that it took her breath away. She stood frozen in horror as the idea took hold. Her heart beat against her ribs with such force she needed to grit her teeth against the pain of it. Part of her wanted to turn tail and run. The coward, she thought, the side of her that always sought to save its skin. Instead, she stood silently, battling for the courage to speak.
Her whispered voice rang with desperation. "Would you take me?"
His eyes narrowed as if she mocked him. His smile was sardonic. "I've a previous engagement."
She felt the noose tightening around her own neck. If he died, her only chance to rescue her family died with him. She knew it without question. "If I get you out, will you promise to come?"
Cole measured the woman. She looked that desperate. He was tempted to say yes, just to be rid of her. It was an easy lie, since the woman's chances of gaining his release were about the same as those of anyone reaching her family in time.
Still he hesitated. He didn't want to struggle any longer. That's why he'd stolen that pretty little mare. Jabbing his finger so far into the mayor's eye, not even he could overlook it. Too bad about the horse's broken leg. He had never intended that. His jaw clenched. Mark it down with his other sins, he thought.
"Please, Mr. Ellis. I need you."
He saw her face clearly now, earnest, thin and as pale as ivory. How long had it been since anyone had needed him?
Cole pulled free of the woman's hand. The heat of her still clung to him, as did the lush scent of orange peels.
"My family's lives, Mr. Ellis, for your liberty."
As if he wanted that. She couldn't provide him the release he sought and neither could he. He glanced at the three full whiskey bottles. Their respite was all too brief, so he'd taken the coward's way.
"Mr. Ellis, you are the only one who has been there." He just wanted her to go away. A lie would make that happen, and what harm would it do? They'd both have what they sought. She'd have hope and he'd have peace. Likely she'd push off to plead with some judge. What was she willing to bargain for his freedom?
The first thing that sprang to his mind made him grimace, though he could not fathom why he cared what the girl did, so long as she did it elsewhere.
Let her weep and plead for his freedom. Then there might be one person in the world who would mourn his passing.
"All right," he whispered.
He didn't want to.
"Swear on the soul of your wife."
He drew back.
He just wanted to lie down and rest, sleep. But she kept picking at him like a crow on a carcass.
"I'll not go until I hear you say it."