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"Shush, baby. Please. They mustn't hear us." Susannah Paul ducked through the cold darkness, dodging tree limbs and praying that her two-week-old little girl would not cry out. Howling winds rustled through the black-as-night woods, sending her scurrying.
Away. If she could fly, high above the rocky, tangled terrain, the two of them would be hundreds of miles away from the town of Cold Plains and its potential dangers. It seemed as if she and the baby had been on the run for hours. Day had become night, and it was harder than ever trying to make her way through the dense forest.
She had no idea how long it had been since she'd bid goodbye to her friend May Frommer and dashed into the woods in broad daylight, but she couldn't stop nownot until she was sure they would not be found.
The baby in the carrier at her breast whimpered low, her cries so pitiful and weak that Susannah's heart winced. We'll stop soon, my darling Melody. Mommy will find safety, I promise. I know you're hungry.
Frustrated to the point of blindness by not being able to slow her steps long enough to feed her child, Susannah barged into a gully and practically tripped over fallen tree limbs in her way. Breathing heavily, she scolded herself for not paying closer attention. It would never do for her to fall. She couldn't while carrying her baby and with the heavy pack of their meager belongings on her back.
At the far side of the gully, the moon broke through heavy foliage and lit her surroundings just enough for her to get her bearings. It was infinitely harder to find her way in the pitch darkness than earlier that morning when she'd gotten directions.
She needed to stop for a moment. They both required water, a little breather.
Leaning against the thick trunk of a tall pine, she pulled a baby bottle from her coat pocket and placed it against her child's lips. "Please drink, sweetheart," she whispered.
Baby Melody seemed drugged and had little interest in the bottle she hadn't learned to use even in the best of surroundings. "I know. You want Mama's milk. But we can't stop that long right now."
Susannah placed a couple of drops of the liquid against the child's mouth, hoping some would spill inside, then she pulled off the nipple and drank a couple of swallows herself. Stale. She didn't blame her child for not being interested in water that tasted old, but her baby needed liquid. It had been several hours since she'd halted their escape long enough to breast-feed.
Did she dare try it now? While they were stopped for the moment, Susannah quieted her breathing and listened for any sign that their pursuers were closing in. She heard leaves rustling in the wind but nothing that sounded like men crashing through the forest after them.
How had she gotten into this position in the first place? Everything that had once been so clean and good had suddenly turned so rotten and dangerous. It didn't seem fair.
But most of her life hadn't been fair, either, she realized. She'd been hoping that the new circumstances and pleasant people she'd found in Cold Plains would do the trick and change her life aroundfor Melody's sake, if not for hers.
The baby didn't deserve to start out her life this way. She hadn't done anything wrong. Susannah refused to allow this kind of prejudice against her child. Melody was not going to suffer the fate she had.
A single tear rolled from the edge of her eye, but Susannah couldn't cry. She couldn't afford to waste the bodily fluids. Biting her cheek to make the tears stop, she tried thinking back to how happy she'd been on the day Melody was born.
That morning she'd walked twelve blocks to the other edge of town, already in labor but determined to reach her new friend's cottage before the birth. May Frommer was one of the kindest people Susannah had ever metwell, next to Samuel Grayson, that was. And May had been waiting with open arms.
Lately Samuel had been too busy selling his health-giving waters and with his duties as leader of the Devotees to spend much time with her. On the other hand, May was the town's midwife, not one of the Devotees but someone who'd lived in Cold Plains all her life.
May had been secretly helping with her pregnancy for months. To be sure, Susannah had also gone to the special parenting classes given by the Devotees. Their classes were extremely helpful for a woman who knew absolutely nothing about being a mother. Her own mother had not been much of an example.
But when it came right down to it, Susannah felt a bit nervous about using the Devotees' tiny urgent-care facility for regular maternity checkups. She wasn't too sure why she felt that way. After all, she'd been ready to turn over the rest of her life to the Devotees. Their facility and most of the town for that matter was brand-new and sparkling clean, and everyone was so pleasant. But she just wasn't comfortable at their urgent care. And though she'd heard a new doctor had also recently come to town and opened his own office, May had already volunteered weeks ago, and Susannah was happy it turned out so well.
The two of them developed a great relationship in the couple of months they'd known each other. They were like sisters almost. May even invited her to have the baby at her cottage instead of Susannah's tiny room at the boardinghouse in town.
For two weeks after Melody's birth, she and the baby had stayed at May's while she learned how to breastfeed and care for a tiny infant. Everything seemed nearly perfect. .until May began putting thoughts into her head.
And then this morning
Clouds suddenly covered the moon, and Susannah heard an odd noise. Turning her head to the sound, she jolted at the sight of gleaming yellow eyes staring at her from out of the bushes. Night creatures. Were they dangerous? Visions of wolves came to mind, sending chills down her spine. It was time to leave.
But which way? She knew she couldn't travel much longer without resting, and the baby desperately needed feeding. But she was becoming turned around in the darkness. How far had they come?
Taking a deep breath, Susannah made a best guess at the right direction and started out through the forest again. Within seconds, the moonlight broke through clouds and canopy, leading her way. She found what looked like a path. Well, maybe it was not a real path but at least a wide place where the brush was not so heavy and the ground seemed level. She rejoiced and followed along. Positive she was at least not headed back toward town, she picked up her pace and hoped to quickly find the highway she'd been seeking all day.
Another ten minutes went by until she came upon a fence. It wasn't much of a fence, just a few wires strung together, but it gave her hope. There was hope for civilization ahead.
She bowed her head to go under one high wire while stepping over the lowest one. Before long, she came to the realization that a fence could be very bad news. What if she'd gotten turned around worse than she'd thought and the fence belonged to the Devotees? They did own property, like the creek and a few isolated houses, which backed up to these same woods. This fence could be at the edge of their property.
She couldn't guess how many miles she might have traveled today. It was difficult going, fighting her way through the woods with an infant. But she was determined to keep moving ahead. There could be no going back.
As she kept walking and left the fence behind, the woods became less and less dense. Through the trees, she began catching glimpses of structures in the moonlight up aheadbuildings civilization people.
She hesitated again, unsure about this. Maybe it was a bad idea to barge in on a stranger, one who could likely be another Devotee.
Gritting her teeth, she walked on in fear. In moments, she came to a clear area surrounding what looked like farm buildings: big barns and sheds. Bright floodlights blazed from every corner of each building, but it seemed no one was around. She hadn't heard of the Devotees owning any ranch or farm.
Listening closely, she couldn't hear a sound except the same crickets and night noises she had been hearing since sunset. Maybe everyone had gone to bed.
She started trembling. The air felt chilly in the woods at night, and spring in Wyoming was known for its cold nights and warm days. But she felt sure her trembling must be coming more from fear than from the weather.
Still, she and Melody needed to get in out of the elements and restright now.
She held her breath and prayed again that the baby would sleep quietly through the next few minutes; she gingerly tiptoed over the short grasses and bare dirt. Fortunately, the nearest building wasn't too far from the fence.
She noticed a small door at the back of the huge barnlike structure. Mentally crossing her fingers, she tried the latch. It was open. With another deep breath and with a tiny protest of the hinges, she and Melody were safely inside.
Susannah had to wait a few minutes for her eyes to adjust to the lower lighting, but once they did, she moved farther into the barn. As she carefully looked around, she decided this place must be used for storage. Near the back door, saddles and tools were strewn across worktables, and all kinds of ropes and equipment hung on the walls.
Walking silently along a wide aisle, she checked right and left. Nothing; there was no sign of human life. As she took a deep breath, she smelled the scent of hay. She knew it must be hay because it smelled a little bit like new-mown grass, only stronger.
Susannah turned onto the center aisle and moved past a wooden half wall to find a large room full of bales of hay. One of the bales nearby was broken open and had spilled out in a blanket of hay on the barn floor.
Just at that point, her knees gave out and she sank into the soft hay. This was as far as she could go for now. Surely it wouldn't hurt anything to stay here for a few hoursjust long enough to feed the baby, have the last protein bar and maybe catch a little sleep.
She pulled the pack off her back and leaned against it for support as the baby began to stir. "You've been so good, my love. It's time for us to eat now. You first."
Peeling the carrier cover back, she found Melody making sucking motions with her eyes closed. Trying to wake her enough to eat, she tapped lightly on her cheek. "Come on, baby, don't give up. It's finally your time."