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Ariana sighed and stacked the day's marked assignments into a neat little pile on the corner of her desk. She had just a few preparations for the next day, and then she could get home. Even though she had recently added more wood to the potbellied cast-iron stove, it was unable to keep the room warm. Her feet cold, she stomped them on the floor once more as she sat at her desk.
She had some assignments to get ready for the next day and a Scripture passage to choose for the morning reading, and then she could bank the fire and be off home. She pulled her sweater a bit closer about her body.
The heavy door creaked open and Ariana raised her head. Along with a few flakes of snow, two men in long, heavy buffalo coats and black hats pulled down over bearded faces stepped through the opening. Ariana knew she had not seen them before.
"Hello," she said pleasantly, thinking them to have lost their way. "Can I help you?"
There was no answer. The two men moved farther into the room. Ariana could sense that their dark eyes were sweeping quickly over the interior, taking in everything they saw. Something about them made her feel very uncomfortable. She stood.
"Can I help you?" she repeated. "If you are looking for the town"
The smaller man looked longingly at the iron stove. Ariana saw one hand reach out toward it, as though to take full benefit of its heat if only for a moment.
"Please, feel free to warm yourselves before you go on," offered Ariana. In spite of herself, she felt a tremble of fear pass through her.
"Reckon we won't take time fer warmin'," said the bigger man gruffly. "Got some ridin' to do. Now iffen you'd jest git yer coat, miss, we'd welcome ya to join us."
Ariana stared in unbelief.
"Git yer coat, miss." The order was growled more loudly from the gravelly voice. Ariana froze to the spot.
"I think ya better do as told, miss," advised the smaller man. "It'll be easier on ya iffen ya cooperate."
"But I ... I can't go with you. My family is expecting me"
"Then yer family will jest have to wait a spell," said the big man. Ariana saw the end of a pistol peeking out from the furry sleeve of his heavy coat.
Ariana stiffened and pulled herself to her full height. She took a deep breath and told herself to hold steady. Not to panic. But at the same moment her whole body trembled. She was afraid she was going to faint.
She closed her eyes and grasped her desk with both hands. Trust in the Lord, she managed inwardly. That was as far as she got with her prayer.
"Git yer coat," barked the big man again. "An' I'd advise thet ya git any other wraps thet might keep out the weather. We got us some tough trails ahead."
"If you think I have any intention of riding off" began Ariana, finding courage she did not know she possessed.
Her words were interrupted by a hoarse laugh. The big man turned to the smaller one. "Ya got us one with spunk, Sam." He laughed again. "I like thet. Should work in our favorlater." Then his eyes turned cruel again. "But not now. Git yer coat."
Ariana lifted her chin and tried to still its trembling. "I will go nowhere with you," she managed.
The big man reached out a hand that closed firmly on Ariana's wrist, making her wince with the pain. Roughly he jerked her toward the hook where her coat hung. She struggled against his iron grip, writhing this way and that in an effort to free herself. The grip on her wrist tightened, sending spasms of pain shooting up her arm.
With one last mighty effort, Ariana spun around and raked her fingernails down the face of her opponent. She saw the prickles of blood appear on the broken skin before he wrestled her to the floor.
"Sam, gimme the rope," he shouted.
The other man stepped forward, an ugly, frayed rope dangling from his hand. For a moment he stood looking down at her, chewing on his stained mustache. Ariana was fighting against tears. Her wrist felt as if it had been broken.
"We be needin' this, missor are ya gonna be reasonable?" asked the man named Sam.
Ariana nodded mutely.
The big man pulled her roughly to her feet. "Then git yer coatand I ain't sayin' it agin," he growled.
Ariana had no choice but to obey.
"Take everything thet ya be needin', miss," said the smaller man. "Ya won't be back fer a while."
Ariana felt there might be just a trace of sympathy in his voice. Instinct told her to respond quietly to his orders. Perhaps if she did not resist, in time she would have an ally.
She quickly moved to get her coat, her eyes darting over the room to see just what she might take with her that could be of use in the uncertain future. With her wrist throbbing painfully, she managed to pull on her heavy coat and do up the buttons. Then she pushed a few items into her cloth carrying bag. She really had very little at the schoolhouse. Just as she was about to move off, she noticed her Bible and quickly slipped it into the bag, as well. She had the impression that it might become more important than ever to her.
Her hands trembled and she felt weak and faint. There was no point in screamingno one was within hearing distance. There was no use trying to fightshe'd never be the winner. And there was no way she could break and runat least not now.
She was being kidnapped. Cruelly, frighteningly kidnappedby two desperadoes. She knew not why and she knew not where they were taking her, but her whole being trembled at the questions tumbling through her mind. What would they do with her? Would she ever see home again? What would her parents think? Her poor mother! Her pupils?
No, she must stop thinking. It would drive her insane. She had to pray. She had to trust God. She had to.
But it was hard to concentrate on Bible passages as she was roughly pushed out the door and toward waiting horses. It was hard to pray sensibly. It was even hard to think.
"Oh, God," was all she was able to whisper.
She was boosted up on one of the horses and given a blanket to cover her legs and feet.
"Wrap yerself in this. It's bitin' cold," said the smaller man.
Reluctantly Ariana obeyed.
"Ya ride?" snarled the bigger man.
"Some," replied Ariana in a trembling voice.
He nodded, as though that was good enough. "Yer gonna ride now," he said in his rough voice, and he grabbed the lead rope attached to her horse and gave a jerk. They were moving out. One man in front of her, one behind.
It was snowing quite heavily now.
All through the long night and into the next day they traveled. Ariana had lost all sense of direction or any clear knowledge of time. They stopped once, and the man Sam dismounted and came up to Ariana.
"Best slip off those shoes and put on these," he informed her. Ariana was so cold she couldn't comply. It was the man who pulled the shoes from her feet and slipped on soft-furred moccasins. He tucked her shoes into one of the packs on the extra animal. Then he handed Ariana some heavy fur mittens. "Put these on," he ordered, and Ariana managed to obey.
At least they were protecting herin some ways. But why? Why was she taken? What was their reason for picking up a simple schoolteacher? They must have confused her with someone else. Surely there would be no demand for ransom. Her father was simply a village parsonnot a wealthy man. He had no money to pay for her release. But if a ransom was not the motive, then why was she taken?
It was again dark when Ariana saw the dim outlines of a cabin. She was helped to dismount by the man named Sam and ledalmost carriedinto the cold interior, no better than the outside as far as temperature went.
Sam busied himself with starting a fire and nodded his head toward the flame as he spoke to Ariana. "Jest don't git too close too quick. Might faint."
And he left her with the big, surly man while he went out to the horses.
The big man said nothing. He did not even remove his coat or hat. He crossed to a wooden frame in the corner that made some sort of crude sleeping platform.
"Gonna git me some shut-eye," he said, and even those words sounded threatening. "Don't go try nothin' foolish. I've shot more'n one man in my sleep."
Ariana shivered from more than just the cold. She bit her lip to keep from crying and huddled more closely to the fire in spite of Sam's warning.
When Sam returned he made a pot of coffee. Ariana was surprised at how good it smelled. She wondered how her stomach could even respond to it under the circumstances.
When the coffee had boiled he poured her a cup, then rummaged in a pack he had brought in and handed her something. It didn't look goodand it didn't smell good, either. Ariana's stomach revolted, even though it ached for something to eat.
"Pemmican," the man informed her. "Boss ain't got much use for Injun ways'ceptin' pemmican." He then shoved something else into her hand. "Hardtack. Eat it. It's all yer gonna git fer a while, an' yer gonna need yer strength."
Ariana cast a glance toward the corner. She could hear snoring coming from the big man. She took a tentative bite of the hardtack. It was tasteless and hard chewing, but it wasn't too bad. She took another and washed it down with the coffee.
She glanced toward the big man. Dared she ask Sam questions?
"I ... I don't understand ... what this is all about," she ventured in a quiet voice. "There must be some mistake. I ... I'm not who you think I am."
Sam chewed off a big bite of the pemmican and spent some time trying to get his teeth to work up the piece before he even attempted a response. "An' who do we think ya are?"
"I ... I've no idea. I ... I'm just a schoolteacher," she stumbled on.
"Got nothin' agin' schoolteachers," said the man, taking a swallow of the hot coffee to wash down the pemmican.
"Now, miss, don't ya go frettin' yerself over it none." He took another bite of the pemmican.
"Don't fret myself!" exclaimed Ariana, raising both her position and her voice.
Sam cast a quick glance toward the corner, reminding Ariana that she'd best watch her step.
She shrank back into her crouched position before the fire. In spite of her strong resolve, tears began to fill her eyes and trickle down her still-cold cheeks. She brushed them away with a trembling hand. Sam continued to eat his pemmican.
Ariana said nothing more. It was Sam who first broke the silence. "How's yer wrist?" he asked.
Ariana's eyes showed her surprise, but she said nothing.
"Let's see it," he suggested.
She hesitated for one moment, then held it out obediently.
He took the wrist in his two hands and ran his thumbs and fingers over the area, bending it forward, then back, nearly making Ariana cry out. He pushed it to one side, then the other, his fingers feeling each bone and muscle as he moved it. Ariana fought the tears.
"Don't think nothin's broke," he said at last, "but it's gonna pain fer a while."
There was no apology. No offer to give any assistance with the pain. He released her hand and went back for another cup of coffee.
As he poured out the thick, steamy liquid he spoke again. "Iffen I were you, I'd jest curl up there beside the fire and try to git some sleep. Once daylight comes I 'spect we'll be movin' on outan' we got a mighty tough ride 'head of us."
Ariana nodded. The fire was making her feel drowsy.
"Here," said Sam, "use this." He tossed his big buffalo-hide coat on the floor at her feet. Ariana reached for it and awkwardly spread it out before the fire.
Ariana could not tell if it was day or night when she was roused from sleep by the nudge of a well-worn boot. The big man stood over her, staring down into her face.
"Time to ride," he ordered.
Ariana struggled to stand. She moved nearer the fireplace, brushing futilely at her wrinkled skirts. The door opened and Sam came in. "Fool weather fer anyone to be out," she heard him grumble.
"Where's yer coat, ya dumb ox?" demanded the big man, no sympathy in his tone.
"Didn't think I'd need it jest to get the horses ready," Sam replied, not looking up from the coffee he was pouring.
Ariana's eyes dropped to her feet. Sam's heavy coat had been her bed for the night. She felt her cheeks warming with the thought that he had chosen to face the bitter cold rather than awaken her. It both embarrassed her and gave her reason to hope. Perhaps the man was not all bad.
"Let's git movin'," said the big man, and he drained his cup of the last swallow of coffee.
"Girl ain't et yet," remarked Sam.
The big man turned to Ariana and scowled. "Best grab ya a biscuit or two. Won't be stoppin' fer no teatime."
Ariana moved forward. Every bone in her body protested. Her entire being hurt. She reached for a biscuit, but the pain in her wrist brought a sharp intake of breath. For a moment she felt faint and fought to stay upright.
Sam made a motion as if to move toward her, but then stopped. Neither made comment.
As soon as the room came back into focus, Ariana reached out with her left hand and claimed one of the biscuits lying on the table. She switched it to her right hand so she could accept the cup of coffee Sam held out to her.
The biscuit was the hardest thing Ariana had ever tried to chew. Hesitantly she dipped one edge into her coffee and chewed off the softened portion. It was not pleasantbut at least it was edible.
Ariana did not have to be encouraged to take full advantage of all of the warmth she was offered. She accepted the heavy mittens, the blanket, and the moth-eaten beaver hat for her head. Even with this she still shivered against the cold.
She could hardly tell if it was day or night. The snow continued to fall, obliterating the sunif indeed it was somewhere up above. The swirling whiteness wiped out all landmarks. Ariana wondered if the two men really knew where they were going or were simply wandering on through the storm. She dared not ask any questions.
After what seemed hours and hours of stumbling their way along the hidden trail, the big man pulled up his horse and the other horses stopped in line behind him.
"Snow's deep," he said when Sam pushed up beside him. "Think it might be wise to camp here tonight."
"I was sure hoping to git on home to my own bed," said Sam.
"It's been slow goin'. Don't think we'll make it home tonight. A bit too risky on thet ridge."
Sam nodded. He didn't seem about to argue on that score.
"There's a cave mouth in there somewhere," said the big man, motioning vaguely. "See iffen ya can find it."
Sam moved off, cursing. "Jest hope no big bear found it first," Ariana heard him say.
The big man turned to her. "Git on down," he said, not offering her any assistance. Ariana wasn't sure if her legs would hold her, but she moved stiffly to obey.
It was as she had feared. Even though she clung to the horse for support, she could not stand upright. Her legs gave way and she found herself in a heap in the deep snow.
"Women," groused the big man to accompanying curses. "Don't got no more starch in their backbone than a snake."
Ariana quite expected to remain in the snow until she could find the strength to moveunless Sam took mercy on her. But to her surprise the big man reached down and roughly scooped her up. He carried her easily to the side of the trail and deposited her unceremoniously on a tree stump without bothering to brush off its cap of snow.
Ariana sat silently, willing herself to hold her tears at bay. They would only freeze on her frosted cheeks, making her even more miserable than she already was.
Sam returned after some moments and announced he had found the caveand it was uninhabited.
Sam moved the horses toward it. With great difficulty Ariana followed the trail broken by Sam and the mounts. The big man brought up the rear.
They gathered in the cave. Sam built a fire, and to Ariana's surprise it was warmer than the cabin had been. But soon swirling gray smoke filled the cave and made Ariana's eyes sting. She moved back into the farthest corner, even though she longed to take advantage of the heat that radiated from the beckoning flames. Sam made the coffee, and along with more hardtack and pemmican, they shared the simple supper. Ariana was only too willing to curl up on spruce boughs and Sam's buffalo robe. She was exhausted. Besides, it was only in sleep that she could shut out the horror of her present experienceeven if only for a few hours of time.
A Gown of Spanish Lace (JANETTE OKE CLASSICS FOR GIRLS) by Janette Oke
Copyright © 2002, Janette Oke
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.