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Wyoming Territory, 1884
Her feet hurt, her arms and shoulders ached, and there was a tremendous rip in the hem of her traveling outfit. Maddalyn grasped the edge of the rock and found a toehold, pushing herself higher still. The stone beneath her fingers was surprisingly cold, the air that brushed her face much chillier than she would have liked.
She was surrounded on all sides by extraordinarily tall, very green trees that blocked the sun, stealing the little bit of spring warmth one would normally expect in the middle of the day. The soft light that filtered through the treetops gave the rugged mountain, with its jutting rocks and towering pine trees, an enchanted look. As though none of it could possibly be real. Maddalyn lifted her head It was time to move ahead, and ahead was up. She managed to climb onto the flat rock, stopped to take a deep breath, and listened.
Nothing. Not a whisper of a breeze, or a twittering bird. No faraway sounds of voices or horses or creaking wheels. How many times in her life had she been surrounded by such complete and deed quiet? This Wyoming Territory mountain was another world, far away from Aunt Ethel's proper Georgia home. There, even at night, she'd not been alone. Cousin Doreen, in the room next door, snored loudly and constantly. Of course, the one time Maddalyn had been impertinent enough to mention it, Aunt Ethel had attempted to lay blame on poor Uncle Henry. Never mind that on several occasions Uncle Henry had been forced to spend the night out of town, and the snoring had continued.
Maddalyn lifted her face to the sloping hill above. It was, she was certain, not quite as steep as the one she'd just mastered. The ground she would have to cover was identical to what she'd seen so far, cold stone, hard ground, and dried pine needles that alternately slipped her up or stabbed her hands. She could always go back down the mountain, but there was no way to be sure that those horrible men wouldn't be waiting for her there.
She closed her eyes and gathered her strength, taking in the cold air as she inhaled deeply. In her twenty-two years, she'd seen a lot. She'd been orphaned, left in the care of a hateful aunt who harangued her every day, attended school and done quite well, watched as her uncle drove away the only man who'd ever been bold enough to express an interest in her ... but she'd never seen anyone die.
And she'd never expected to see anyone die violently. That poor stagecoach driver, shot not once, but three times. He'd been an odd little man, with very few teeth and horribly dirty clothes. But he'd seemed a nice enough fellow, and smiled frequently even though he was missing so many teeth. The sight of that dusty shirt stained with blood would not leave her mind. And poor Mr. Harrison, the only other passenger on the stage, conked over the head with the wrong end of a gun. He hadn't put up a fight, hadn't even had a weapon. But when he'd had the nerve to stir, the bandits had unceremoniously shot him in the back.
Maddalyn had no doubt that she would have been killed, too. Eventually. The outlaws had seen no threat from her, and had stopped to rifle through the boxes that had been strapped to the roof. She'd taken a couple of steps back and toward the forest, wrung her hands, and begged them not to hurt her.
They'd laughed. Ugly, hateful guffaws.
While they'd been bent over a strongbox that seemed to be of particular interest to them, Maddalyn had turned and run. Into the forest, up that first rise, into the trees. She didn't think they would follow her. One of the outlaws had been almost as fat as Cousin Doreen, and the other had walked with a pronounced limp. They wore masks, dust-covered bandannas that covered most of their faces, but she could tell by the tufts of gray hair that poked out from their dusty hats, and by the wrinkled skin on their necks, that they were not young men.
They wouldn't follow her. They wouldn't. It became a litany she repeated, in her head and aloud, for hours after she'd escaped.
But she was afraid to go back down the mountain.
Time to tackle the next rise. Maddalyn took a single step forward and promptly tripped. She caught herself, but lay there for a moment with her face against the pine needles that covered the ground before she lifted her head. Her hair covered her face, golden curls that were normally well restrained curling wildly and festooned with a number of pine needles. Somewhere along the way, quite a while back, she'd lost the ribbon that had held her curls back.
She brushed the tangled mass away from her face and stood again. It hardly made sense to bemoan the loss of a simple hair ribbon when she'd just lost everything else she owned.
Planting her feet firmly on the ground, giving thanks that she had at least purchased a sturdy pair of boots before leaving Georgia, Maddalyn took yet another deep, calming breath.
"Maddalyn Lorraine Kelly," she said aloud, "you most certainly cannot stop here. There must be something ahead, even if it's clear on the other side of this mountain." The sound of her own voice in the deep quiet of the woods was soothing. Aunt Ethel had dearly hated it when Maddalyn had talked to herself. Said it was a sure sign that she was not quite right.
"Aunt Ethel isn't here, is she?" Maddalyn said as she took a step forward. "And if anyone's not quite right it's that nasty old windbag." Speaking so plainly about her aunt gave Maddalyn a burst of energy and courage. No, she couldn't go back. Not back down the mountain, not back to Georgia.
It was that certainty that propelled her up the mountain. She could move ahead or move back, and going back was not an option Maddalyn was willing to consider. Each steep rise, each cold rock she climbed, became a conquest. A victory. A step toward her new life.
She saw the rising smoke first, and still the sight of the roof took her by surprise. Maddalyn lowered herself to the ground and crept forward until she could see the cabin clearly. Prone, and with her face barely off the ground, she took in the sight. It was quite a large log cabin, solidly built at the top of the mountain. The area around the cabin had been cleared, and that only made the building appear more out of place, a stark contrast to the mountain she had just climbed. Smoke rose gently from the chimney, a welcoming sign that Maddalyn was wary of.
Would it be too bold of her to ask the inhabitants of that cabin for help? Surely they would be shocked to see a woman alone on top of their mountain. Would they greet her with a shotgun? Were they anything like the men who had robbed the stagecoach and killed two men before her eyes?
As she hesitated, the door burst open. Three men filed from the cabin, and at the sight of them Maddalyn held her breath. They were very large, tall and broad, and very hairy, with thick beards and mustaches and long brown hair that hung past their shoulders. What sort of men were these? Not the sort she was accustomed to, certainly. They appeared to be completely uncivilized, unkempt, and as wild as the animals that certainly roamed this mountain. Barbarians, she thought with a chill. Wild mountain men.
And they were arguing, all three of them talking loudly and quickly and at the same time. Even though their voices were loud, she couldn't understand a word they said, since all three of them spoke at once.
It was two against one, she decided as she watched, finally giving in and taking a shallow breath. One of the men turned and faced the others, spreading his arms wide and yelling into their faces. She caught a glimpse of his hairy face as he turned. It was no more than a glance, but her heart beat furiously with a fear as strong as she'd felt when faced by those bandits.
They walked away from the cabin, continuing to argue ceaselessly, and together the three tall men disappeared over a rise on the other side of the dwelling.
Maddalyn remained motionless on the ground for a few moments. What were her chances of finding another cabin on this mountain? Quite small, if not nonexistent. Perhaps there was a woman inside right now, preparing dinner for the three large men.
She crept from the woods, watching the now deserted rise over which the men had disappeared. Desperate as she was for assistance, she wasn't yet so desperate that she'd chance a meeting with those gentlemen.
The door the men had used was slightly ajar, and swung inward slightly as Maddalyn knocked.
"Hello?" she called, her voice a whisper. "Is anyone home?"
The door opened onto a large kitchen, a large empty kitchen. "Hello?" she called, a little louder. Her voice echoed through the silent house.
In the middle of the warm kitchen there was a long table. It was plain, made of rough wood, and there was no tablecloth. But there were three steaming bowls of what appeared to be stew, and a pan of biscuits in the middle of it all, along with containers of salt and pepper.
The aroma was heavenly, and Maddalyn stepped into the kitchen, closing the door behind her. She was starving, and hadn't even realized it until this very moment, as that wonderful smell tantalized her: meat and spices and what was certainly onions. Her stomach growled, and Maddalyn bit one corner of her watering mouth. Surely it was not wrong to take just a little bit of food if one was truly hungry.
She sat in the chair nearest the door, took the spoon that rested by the bowl, and lifted a full spoonful to her lips. Delicious. She closed her eyes and took several bites before the sting of the pepper hit her. There was a tin mug at her right hand, and she grabbed it, chugging down a good half of the mug's contents. Cider, she decided as the warmth hit her belly.
A quick look into the bowl confirmed her suspicions. Someone had dusted the stew liberally with the pepper on the table. It was just too much for her. Without hesitation, still starving, Maddalyn moved to the seat at her left.
She tested this bowl carefully, tasting only a spoonful. This serving had been salted much too liberally, and she took a sip from the mug that rested beside the salty stew before she moved on.
The third bowl of stew was heavenly, and Maddalyn closed her eyes as she devoured it. Aunt Ethel had never served stew, but Maddalyn had come to appreciate a nice bowl as she'd traveled west. This particular stew was wonderful. Tasty, warm, seasoned perfectly, it was just right. She alternated hasty bites with small sips of the cider, until her spoon hit the bottom of the empty bowl.
And she realized that she had just eaten someone's evening meal. A meal prepared for one of those enormous and very cross men.
Maddalyn jumped from the seat and ran to the stove. There was a pot there, and there was a good portion of stew remaining. All she had to do was refill the bowl, clean the spoons, find the cider....
She heard the voices before she had a chance to do any of those things. Angry voices, still, and one of them was very close as she turned away from the table.
Maddalyn hesitated, turned swiftly, and grabbed a biscuit from the pan at the center of the table. Just one, and there were so many, and they looked so good.
She slipped from the kitchen into a large main room. A fire blazed in the fireplace, three chairs were arranged there in a half-circle, and there was another door directly opposite the one she had entered.
Facing the men was impossible. She had entered their home unbidden, and eaten from their table without an invitation. She could not confront them and risk having that barbaric anger turned toward her.
She slipped quietly out of the door off the main room, and found herself on a wide front porch. In spite of her hurry, she stopped for a moment. Straight ahead, the view was unlike anything she'd ever seen. This was just one mountain of many, and the view went on forever. Blue and green and crystal clear, and the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. Such magnificent vastness, such power, such beauty. Maddalyn thought for a moment that she would be content to stand there on the porch at the top of the mountain forever.
But when she heard the kitchen door slam, she lifted her ripped skirt in her hands, ran down the steps, and circled the house to enter the woods.
Eric threw open the kitchen door, allowing it to crash into the wall and swing shut behind him. Four years ago, when he'd asked his two older brothers to join him in his venture, he hadn't expected this. He'd assumed that Karl and Conrad would always have the same aspirations for their logging business that he did.
Ranching would change everything. They didn't need more money, and they certainly didn't need to bring cattle and cowboys to the mountain. Eric liked his solitude, needed it the way he needed the cool, clean air and the endless view from the front porch.
It was all Conrad's fault. Eric was certain this was his idea. Conrad, the middle brother, had always been the one to get into mischief. The shortest of the three at barely six feet, he'd always tried to make up for what he lacked in height with his big mouth. Ranching! Karl was quiet, thoughtful, and on occasion too easily swayed. It wouldn't have taken Conrad ten minutes to convince his older brother that ranching was the way to go.
But a deal was a deal. Unless the decision was unanimous, there would be no changes made.
Eric shucked off his heavy coat and hung it on the peg behind the kitchen door. They wouldn't change his mind. He liked his life and his mountain just the way they were.
And to top it all off, his stew was getting cold, and he was famished.
He had taken his seat and lifted his spoon before he noticed that the bowl was empty. A residue of what had been a bowl full of stew just a few minutes ago was all that remained. Eric lifted his tin cup. It had been filled with Conrad's special cider, full to the rim. Now it was empty.
Eric was still staring into the empty cup, a deepening frown on his face, when the kitchen door opened and his brothers entered the cabin.
"Couldn't wait for us?" Conrad called almost cheerfully as he pulled off his coat and hung it next to Eric's. "I guess it's cooled off enough for us to dig in."
Karl was silent as he hung up his coat, then turned to the table with a frown and narrowed eyes.
Eric glanced up at his brothers. They stared first at their own bowls and then at him.
"It's bad enough that you run in here in a fit of temper and wolf down your own supper," Conrad said as he lifted his spoon. A drop of stew ran down the side. "But you had no call to dip into ours as well."
"I didn't...." Eric began.
A glare from Karl stopped him. A glare from Karl could probably stop a speeding train, it was so fierce. His size was intimidating enough, six and a half feet tall and almost as wide in the shoulders, but coupled with that narrow-eyed stare ... Karl lifted his own tin cup, stared into it briefly, and then returned his stare to Eric.
"Half my cider is gone." His voice was surprisingly soft, not quite a whisper. Men had quaked at the sound of that gruff whisper.
"I didn't —" Eric began.
"Don't deny it, little brother," Conrad said, stepping to the stove to grab the handle of the still warm pot of stew Eric had prepared just that afternoon. He topped off Karl's bowl, and then his own, before turning to Eric and filling his bowl. "What, do you expect us to believe that someone climbed the mountain and crept into the cabin, all for a taste of your stew? It's pretty good, little brother, though it could use a little more salt, but it's not that good."
Conrad returned the pot to the stove, sat down, and salted his stew liberally. Again. He'd salted it earlier, when they'd first sat down at the table to three filled bowls of stew that were much too hot to eat. The argument about the expansion Conrad proposed had begun, and they'd taken the discussion — if you could call it that - outside while the stew cooled.
"I know it doesn't make sense." Eric tried to maintain his calm. Not an easy task when he was already angry. "But someone else was in here. Someone who ate my stew and drank my cider and started on yours before we came back. We probably frightened whoever it was away."
Karl shook his head slowly. Conrad smiled as he ate enthusiastically. Neither one of them believed him.
And he certainly wouldn't waste his time trying to convince his two stubborn older brothers. Eric ate his own stew, and wondered silently about their visitor. An old mountain man who stumbled on the cabin? A trapper? A hunter? No one could have gotten down the road without being seen, and the approach from any other direction was ... well, difficult, but not impossible.
Excerpted from Someone's Been Sleeping in My Bed by Linda Jones. Copyright © 1996 Linda Winstead Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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