Golden dreams in California never came true for Lizzie Buchanan and her family. After her sister and brother-in-law died trying to find gold, Lizzie is left with her two young nephews. She vows to take them home to Kentucky where they can live far away from the greed in the gold fields. To fulfill her vow, she needs help. The only one she can turn to is the man who shattered her heart on her way west.
Cliff Hollister likes working hard and playing hard. He doesn't have room in his life for Lizzie and the boy. Then he realizes that she could earn him a fortune with her skills at the card table, so he agrees to escort them east. But it's more than gold that draws him to her, because he is curious why he has never been able to forget lovely Lizzie. Now, as they travel, he is determined to find out . . .
|Publisher:||Open Road Distribution|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||671 KB|
About the Author
Jo Ann Ferguson is a lifelong storyteller and the author of numerous romantic novels. She also writes as Jo Ann Brown and Mary Jo Kim. A former US Army officer, she has served as the president of the national board of the Romance Writers of America and taught creative writing at Brown University. She currently lives in Nevada with her family, which includes one very spoiled cat.
Read an Excerpt
By Jo Ann Ferguson
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Jo Ann Ferguson
All rights reserved.
Dead drunk. With a moan, he grasped his head. He understood the phrase too well. He was the latter and wished he could be the former. His head felt as if a tombstone was grinding down into his shoulders.
He dropped back into the mud after trying to gain his feet. That rotgut was becoming too much for a man with as many miles behind him as Cliff Hollister had. Even a few trips ago, he could waste his pay and walk away with a whistle on his lips.
Damn! he thought again. This was a young man's game, and he was not getting any younger.
When he felt a hand on his shoulder, he cracked one eye open and fought to focus it. With the glare of the sun in his eyes, he stared at the wavering form before him. Irritably he wondered why the sun was out. He could not remember any of last night ... or the night before ... or the night before that....
He smiled as he heard the feminine voice. Maybe it was not so bad after all. One of Delilah's gals must be feeling sorry for him. He could enjoy some female sympathy right now. As he tasted the mud in his mouth, he doubted if he would be able to savor much else with her.
Then he remembered the state of his nearly empty pockets. Gathering the remnants of his tarnished dignity, which was all remaining to him, he managed to struggle into a sitting position. He leaned against a watering trough, with one arm dangling in the water. The dampness climbed the flannel sleeve of his shirt, but he paid it no mind.
"Are you Mr. Hollister?" Disbelief heightened the voice.
He smiled again, then moaned as the simple motion wrenched his too tender head. Squinting, he tried to bring her into focus. If she looked half as fine as her sweet voice sounded even through his aching skull, she would be a lovely lass. Not too old either, by the lilt of her voice. He did not recognize its warmly husky tones, which surprised him, for he was sure he would know any of Delilah's gals.
"Yeah, I'm Hollister." He winced. Dammit! Why did his own words have to twirl through his head like heated winds across the desert? Irritably he snapped, "If you are looking for a customer, honey, you are two days too late. My gold is gone."
"Are you Cliff Hollister, the wagon master?"
Finally he found the stamina to stand. He wiped his hands on his mud-caked pants and staggered forward several steps before he could secure his balance. Looking down into her face, he saw it for the first time without the sun burning his eyes. He swayed as he bowed but avoided falling on his face. Even through the blur in his mind, he noted she did not put out her hands to break his fall. The lass had been around too many drunks to worry about another.
Easily he appraised her. To his drink-gazed eyes, she had seemed like a blob of dark against the sky. Closing one eye, he tried to bring her form into some sort of recognizable shape. He nearly laughed as he noted her ragtag clothes. None of the whores at Delilah's would be dressed like that. Her flannel shirt had a tattered hem and was threadbare at the elbows. Beneath it, she wore a pair of the denims favored by the miners in the hills. A felt hat sat on the back of her head and was tied under her chin with a piece of twine.
"I am Cliff Hollister, honey. Who are you? You certainly had better get yourself some nicer working clothes if you want to make a living here in Hopeless. The boys like to see a woman dressed in lace, not decked out like one of them."
Outrage tinged her voice. She spoke with an accent far too cultured for any woman wearing the uniform of a miner. "My name is Lizzie Buchanan, sir. And I am not ... Never mind! If you are Cliff Hollister, I am looking for you."
Irritably, he stated, "I told you that already, honey. And I told you I had no money to pay a whore, nor at the moment do I have any desire for your company. Go on, lass, and leave me alone until I find my head and rid myself of this boulder."
As if he had not spoken, she continued, "Mr. Hollister, I have to get back east."
"Take a ship. They leave weekly from Frisco."
"I have too little money to pay for passage for the three of us."
He shrugged. "Well, earn it, honey." He placed his face close to hers and laughed as she quickly stepped back several paces. Flighty little thing, she was. Pretty as a prairie morning with her hair the color of wind-dried grass and her eyes the same shade as bottomland soil.
"I thought I could hire you to escort us back."
Cliff roared with laughter. The sound reverberated inside his skull, and his laugh abruptly changed to a moan. He started to wander away in search of a place to finish sleeping off his drinking binge. He had staggered a half dozen steps when he stumbled and fell.
Spitting more mud from his mouth, he heard the light sound of female laughter. He erupted from the mire to glare at the wisp of a woman with her hands on her hips. When she giggled again, he wiped his face on his equally filthy shirt. His nose caught in a rent in the sleeve, and he swore imaginatively.
"Forget it, Mr. Hollister!" she called as he rose unsteadily. "You cannot find your way along the street. I doubt you would be worth a day's panning, as far as taking us home is concerned."
He rounded on her and grasped her by her surprisingly slender shoulders. The wide sleeves of the work shirt had led him to believe she was much bigger than his hands told him. Shaking her, he watched as her hair filtered from beneath the hat. Mousy, he decided. He liked his women well rounded, with raven locks.
"Listen here, honey. I am the best damned wagon master this country has ever had. In my last three trips, I lost not one weak-bellied settler to a trail accident. I always arrive with at least three-quarters of the wagons we had when we left St. Louis."
Gazing up at his gray eyes, she smiled coolly. "You smell like a three-day-old corpse, sir." She laughed again at his shocked reaction to her response to his pronouncement.
Lizzie Buchanan did not need to hear a recitation of Cliff Hollister's qualifications. She knew from firsthand experience his capabilities. When she had come with her sister, her sister's husband, and their young sons to the gold fields of California three years before, this man had been the assistant wagon master of their caravan of canvas-topped farm wagons. She had seen his prowess in the sometimes sensitive administration of the wagon train.
As she regarded him, she knew when his dirt-encrusted hair and beard were clean, they would be a rich walnut brown. Lizzie had not forgotten, during those intervening years of hard labor, the sparkling smile of Cliff Hollister when he stopped to talk at their wagon. Not that he had noticed a gawky teenager among the women of the train.
There had been stories of him and that Birley girl.... She shook her head. That did not concern her. She needed help, and this man might be the only one able to give it.
"Look, Mr. Hollister, I am willing to hire you to take me and my two boys back to Independence or St. Joseph. You have to go there anyway to meet your next wagon train. Why not make a few dollars on the way?"
"I am in no mood to be doing business, honey."
"You are in no condition, you mean!" she retorted tartly. Shoving him away from her, she called over her shoulder, "I will find someone else."
"Good! I hope—"
When she heard a crash behind her, she nearly did not turn around. With a sigh, she saw he was again face down in the awful mixture of mud and unsavory town litter. She knew she should leave him in the swill with the rest of the swine.
The only problem was she needed him. It was deep into September. If they did not leave soon, they would be imprisoned in Hopeless for another winter. She cringed as she imagined living in a shack on the hillside. More wind came through the unchinked walls of the primitive cabins than was kept out during the damp months of the winter.
Squaring her shoulders, she wondered if she was up to this task. In the months since the accident in the mine, she had learned she could do things she would once have scoffed at as impossible. If she wanted to go home to Kentucky, she had to depend on herself to make it happen.
The one thing she could not do alone was find the way east through the trackless lands inhabited only by wolves, prairie dogs, and Indians. She went back and picked up Hollister's arm. With it wrapped around her, she put her shoulder beneath him. Straining, but with strength garnered from hard hours of working in the mine, she raised him to his feet.
His head lolled and came to rest on top of hers, and she sagged under his weight. Fiercely she fought to straighten her knees. Asking herself why she was bothering but knowing there was no other alternative, she half carried him down the street, which was only two storefronts long.
Those two buildings were all that was needed in Hopeless—the saloon and the assayer's office. They served everyone's needs. There was a store and a blacksmith to repair tools on the other side of the ridge in Mud Hollow.
At the end of the street, she turned toward the rising sun. The hut stood alone. It had cost a great deal to rent it for the last three weeks, and by the end of the month they would have to vacate it. To pay Mr. Emory's exorbitant rent would take the last of their money, which they needed to return East.
"Open the door, Tommy!" she called to the larger of the two boys sitting in the mud by the cabin. She sighed with exhaustion. Not only would she have to tote water from the creek for Mr. Hollister, she would have to wash the boys again.
Mud. She wondered if every bit of California was covered by it. All she had seen of the state was. Mud and rock and useless dreams of glitter that did not exist for this family.
The child leapt to his feet, knocking his little brother into the dirt. Lizzie soothed the little one even as she was aiding the man over the threshold and into the cabin. As if she were manipulating a puppet, she had to control his every movement by telling him what she wished him to do.
"Pick up your right foot, Mr. Hollister. Step through the door."
She bit her lip as she heard the children laughing at the man's inept attempts to follow her orders. His foot hit the raised board of the doorsill for the third time, nearly knocking them both on their faces. Only because she had to concentrate did she restrain the giggles bubbling in her throat.
Entering the house's one room, she glanced at the yellowed sheets on the bed and shook her head. Her hospitality did not extend to allowing this filth-covered drunk to sleep in their clean bed. A grim expression of satisfaction settled on her face as she let the man drop heavily to the uneven planks of the floor.
He groaned as he hit the hard surface, but he didn't move. She looked at him, rubbing her aching shoulder, and wondered if she had been foolish to drag him here. When he had slept off his whiskey, there was no guarantee he would help her and the boys. All she might end up with were these sore muscles. If she did not have to get home so desperately, she would have found someone else. Right now, right here, no one else could help her. Few came to Hopeless, for the settlement had been appropriately named. The covered wagons went elsewhere. That was why she had been so excited to hear that Cliff Hollister had been sighted in the saloon.
As she regarded the man lost in his drunken hallucinations, she wondered if salvation always came clothed in mud and reeking of Delilah's cheap whiskey. She stepped over him and put a tentative finger to the coffeepot on the cast-iron stove. The pot was still warm. Taking it and stretching for one of the two chipped cups on the shelf, she poured herself a serving of the bitter beverage.
She leaned against the wall and wondered what was going to happen. One side of her mouth tilted up wryly as she heard the thunderous sound of Cliff Hollister's snores.
"No wonder Delilah threw you into the street," she said with a chuckle. "That noise would rattle the walls of her place and scare off her customers."
No response came from the man. She decided there was nothing to do but let him sleep. Pouring water into the tub, she centered it on the table, which, with two benches and the bed she shared with the two children, filled the tiny house. She began to rinse the breakfast dishes. It was a simple task. Three bowls, two mugs with no handles, and a trio of wooden spoons were all that had to be cleaned before they could be used for the next meal.
The two boys wandered in to stare at the prone form. "Who is that, Lizzie?" asked the younger.
"That is the man who is going to take us home, Pete." She tousled his hair with her wet hands as he wrapped his arms around her leg. The water darkened his flaxen hair and spiked it to stand at odd angles.
"But we are home."
Her lips tightened. This was the only home these boys knew. Tommy could barely remember the trip west, and Pete had celebrated his first birthday here on a blistering summer day that baked the mud and turned it into hard patches of cracked earth. This was not the world they were going to have all their lives. They deserved something much finer, and she intended to see they would have it.
Gently she said, "I have told you we are going east."
"I don't want to go," whined the child. "I want to go home to Pa and Ma."
Lizzie knelt by him and pulled his head against her chest. Like her, the two boys were dressed in flannels and denims. She had cut their shirts and trousers down from the last of their father's clothes. Already Pete was outgrowing the shirt, and the hems on the sleeves had been turned down as far as possible. She did not want to think of how she would be able to dress them all if they were forced to stay in Hopeless through another winter.
"You can't be with your Pa and Ma, Pete. They are in heaven. Remember?"
"Yeah, remember the bad boom?" added Tommy with the wisdom of his six years.
As the younger one nodded, Lizzie felt a burning at the back of her eyes. Lowering them to the rough floorboards, she knew she could not meet the innocent gaze of the two pairs of brown eyes, so like their father's candid ones. She could not share their easy acceptance of the abrupt alteration of their lives, from a happy family struggling to grasp a dream to a spinster and two orphans.
It had been so sudden. Two sudden, but overdue, for they had teased the vagaries of luck too long. An ear-wrenching crash and two people buried in the side of a mountain, never to be rescued. If she had been with them that day ...
The man on the floor groaned, drawing her attention from the past. She rose and went to the tub on the table. "Go on and play, boys. I will call you when it is time to eat. Don't wander away or go near Delilah's!"
"We know, Lizzie," said Tommy with the tired disgust of a child who hears the same rules every day.
More than once Pa had told him that if something happened in the mountain, he, Tommy, would be the man of the family. Just once he wished Lizzie would let him assume that role. He grimaced as he tripped over the boot of the sprawled-out man, who had not moved during the conversation.
Why did she have to bring this whiskey-soaked fool home? Neither he nor Pete wanted to leave the Whitney's Dream mine. Gold waited in there. If they could stay a few more years, he would be big enough to break the rock to set the charges himself. He knew how. Pa had let him help count them more than once.
He glanced at Lizzie. Pa also had told him to obey her. There was no choice but to go to Kentucky. Later he would return. The claim belonged to him and Pete. They would prove to everyone that Pa was right when he said a fortune in gold was hiding in there.
Watching the youngsters go out into the warm sun, Lizzie sighed. She understood how frustrated they were about departing from the only world they knew. Three years ago she had felt the same when she was told they were leaving Kentucky, so she knew that no words she could say to the boys would convince them she was right. The mention of school, fine clothes, and a comfortable house with playmates next door would not appeal to them.
Throughout the day, she did her chores. In a surprisingly short time, she grew accustomed to stepping over the broad shoulders of the man on the floor. Soon he seemed to be no different from any other permanent feature of the cabin.
With the last of the yeast she had bought from the man who sold beer to Delilah, she made bread for their supper. Setting the dough on the doorstep to rise, she kept a watchful eye on it. With no window in the cabin, this was the warmest spot in the house. More than once, her dough had been tipped onto the ground or stolen by some four-legged creature. She would bake the bread in the cast iron Dutch oven.
Excerpted from Nothing Wagered by Jo Ann Ferguson. Copyright © 1988 Jo Ann Ferguson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.