“Keep doing that you’ll get yourself killed,” Nic said to the boy. Panting, Nic paused and wiped his forehead of sweat. For an hour now, as he moved sacks of grain from a wagon to a wheelbarrow and into the warehouse, he’d glimpsed the boy daring fate as he ran across the busy street, narrowly escaping horse hooves and wagon wheels.
“Where’s your mother?”
The brown-haired boy paused. “Don’t have a mother.”
“Well then, where’s your father?”
The boy cast him an impish grin and shrugged one shoulder.
“Is he coming back soon?” Nic persisted.
“Soon enough. You won’t tell ’im, will ya?”
“Tell him what?” Nic tossed back with a small smile. “Long as you stop doing whatever you’re not supposed to be doing.”
The boy wandered closer and climbed up to perch on the wagon’s edge, watching Nic with eyes that were as dark as his hair. Nic relaxed a bit, relieved that the kid wasn’t in imminent danger.
Nic hefted a sack onto his shoulder and carried it to the cart. It felt good to be working again. He liked this sort of heavy labor, the feel of muscles straining, the way he had to suck in his breath to heave a sack, then release it with a long whoosh. A full day of this sort of work allowed him to drop off into dreamless sleep—something he hungered for more than anything else these days.
The boy was silent, but Nic could feel him staring, watching his every move like an artist studying a subject he was about to paint. “How’d you get so strong?” the boy said at last.
“Always been pretty strong,” Nic said, pulling the next sack across the wooden planks of the wagon, positioning it. “How’d you get so fast?”
“Always been pretty fast,” said the boy, in the same measured tone Nic had used.
Nic smiled again, heaved the sack to his shoulder, hauled it five steps to the cart, and then dropped it.
“This your job?” the boy asked.
“For today,” Nic said.
Nic loaded another sack, and the boy was silent for a moment. “My dad’s looking for help. At our mine.”
“Hmm,” Nic said.
“Needs a partner to help haul rock. He’s been asking around here for days.”
“Miner, huh? I don’t care much for mining.”
“Why not? You could be rich.”
“More miners turn out dead than rich.” He winced inwardly, as a shadow crossed the boy’s face. It’d been a while since he’d been around a kid this age. He was maybe ten or eleven max, all wiry muscle and sinew. Reminded him of a boy he knew in Brazil.
Nic carried the next sack over to the wagon, remembering the heat there, so different from what Colorado’s summer held. Here it was bone dry. He was sweating now, after the morning’s work, but not a lot. In Brazil a man soaked his sheets as he slept.
“Listen, kid,” he said, turning back around to the wagon, intending to apologize for upsetting him. But the boy was gone.
Nic sighed and set to finishing his work. As the sun climbed high in the sky, he paused to take a drink from his canteen and eat a hunk of bread and cheese, watching the busy street at the end of the alleyway. He wondered if he’d see the boy again, back to his antics of racing teams of horses. The child was probably letting off steam, just as Nic had done all his life—he’d been about the child’s age when he’d first starting scrapping with others.
But that was in the past. Not since his voyage aboard the Mirabella had Nic indulged the need, succumbed to the desire to enter a fight. Several times now, he’d had the opportunity—and enough cause—to take another man down. But he had walked away. He knew, deep down he knew, that if he was ever to face his sisters, Odessa and Moira, again, if he was to come to them and admit he was penniless, everything would somehow be all right if he was settled inside. If he could come to a place of peace within, the kind of peace Manuel had known. It was the kind of thing that allowed a man to stand
up straight, shoulders back, the kind of thing that gave a man’s gut peace. Regardless of what he accomplished, or had in the past. Thing was, he hadn’t found that place of comfort inside, and he didn’t want what Manuel tried to sell him—God.
There had to be another way, another path. Something like this work. Hard manual labor. That might be what he needed most.
Nic heard a man calling, his voice a loud whisper, and his eyes narrowed as the man came limping around the corner, obviously in pain, his arm in a sling. “You, there!” he called to Nic. “Seen a boy around? About yea big?” he said, gesturing to about chest height.
“Yeah, he was here,” Nic called back. He set his canteen inside the empty wagon and walked to the end of the alleyway.
“Where’d he go?” the man said. Nic could see the same widow’s peak in the man’s brown hair that the boy had, the same curve of the eyes … the boy’s father, clearly.
“Not sure. One minute he was watching me at work, the next he was gone.”
“That’s my boy, all right.”
“I’ll help you find him.”
The man glanced back at him and then gave him a small smile. He stuck out his good arm and offered his hand. “I’d appreciate that. Name’s Vaughn. Peter Vaughn.”
“Dominic St. Clair,” he replied. “You can call me Nic.”
Peter smiled. His dimples were in the exact same spot as the boy’s. “Sure you can leave your work?”
“I’m nearly done. Let’s find your boy.”
“Go on,” Moira’s sister urged, gazing out the window. “He’s been waiting on you for a good bit now.”
“I don’t know what he sees in me,” Moira said, wrapping the veil around her head and across her shoulder again. It left most of her face visible but covered the burns at her neck, ear, and scalp. Did it cover them enough? She nervously patted it, making sure it was in place.
Odessa stepped away from washing dishes and joined her. “He might wonder what you see in him. Do you know what his story is? He seems wary.” Their eyes met and Odessa backtracked. “Daniel’s a
good man, Moira. I think highly of him. But I’d like to know what has burdened him so. Besides you.” She nudged her sister with her hip.
Moira wiped her hands on the dish towel and glanced out at him as he strode across the lawn with Bryce, Odessa’s husband. He was striking in profile, reminding her of the statues of Greek gods the French favored in their lovely tailored gardens. Far too handsome for her—since the fire, anyway. She shook her head a little.
Irritated at being caught in thought, Moira looked at Odessa again.
“Trust him, Moira. He’s a good man. I can sense it.”
She nodded, but inwardly she sighed as she turned away and wrapped a scarf around her veiled head and shoulders. A good man. After Reid and Max and Gavin—could she really trust her choice in men? Odessa was fortunate to have fallen for her husband, Bryce, a good man through and through. Moira’s experiences with men had been less than successful. What made Odessa think this one was trustworthy?
But as Daniel ducked his head through the door and inclined it to one side in silent invitation to walk with him, Moira thought about how he had physically saved her more than once. And how his gentle pursuit both bewildered and calmed her. Daniel had done nothing to deserve her suspicions.
She moved over to the door. He glanced at her, and she noticed how his thick lashes made his brown eyes more pronounced. He shuffled his feet as if he were nervous. “You busy?” he asked.
“No.” Moira felt a nervous tension tighten her stomach muscles.
“Can we, uh …” His gaze shifted to Odessa, who quickly returned to her dishes. “Go for a walk?” he finally finished.
Moira smoothed her skirts and said, “I’d like that.” Then, meeting her sister’s surreptitious gaze, she followed him outside. It was a lovely day on the Circle M. The horses pranced in the distance. She could see her brother-in-law riding out with Tabito, the ranch’s foreman.
“So, you wanted to talk,” she ventured.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t want to talk to you, Moira,” he said.
She looked up at him and then, when she saw the ardor in his gaze, she turned with a sigh.
“Don’t look away,” he whispered gently, pulling her to face him. He reached to touch her veil, as if he longed to cradle her cheek instead.
“No, Daniel, don’t,” she said and ran a nervous hand over the cover. He was tall and broad, and she did not feel physically menaced—it was her heart that threatened to pound directly out of her chest. Perhaps she wasn’t ready for this … the intimacies that a courtship brought.
She’d been dreaming about what it would be like to be kissed by him, held by him, but he never made such advances before. Never took the opportunity, leaving her to think that he was repulsed by
her burns, her hair, singed to just a few inches long, her past relationship with Gavin, or her pregnancy—despite what he claimed. Her hand moved to the gentle roundness of her belly, still small yet making itself more and more prominent each day. “I … I’m not even certain why you pursue me at all. Why you consider me worthy. ”
He seemed stunned by her words. “Worthy?” he breathed. He let out a hollow, breathy laugh and then looked to the sky, running a hand through his hair. He shook his head and then slowly brought his brown eyes down to meet hers again. “Moira,” he said, lifting a hand to cradle her cheek and jaw, this time without hesitation. She froze, wondering if he intended to kiss her at last. “I only hesitate because I am afraid,” he whispered.
“Afraid? You think I am not? I come to you scarred in so many ways, when you, you, Daniel, deserve perfection.…”
“No,” he said, shaking his head too. “It is I who carry the scars. You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am. Who I once was. What I’ve done …”
“So tell me,” she pleaded. “Tell me.”
He stared at her a moment longer, as if wondering if she was ready, wondering if she could bear it, and Moira’s heart pounded again. Then, “No. I can’t,” he said with a small shake of his head. He sighed heavily and moved up the hill. “Not yet.”
An hour after they began their search for Everett Vaughn, Peter sat down on the edge of the boardwalk and looked up to the sky. His face was a mask of pain. “That boy was hard to track when I wasn’t hurt.”
“He’ll turn up,” Nic reassured.
Peter nodded and lifted his gaze to the street.
“What happened to you?” Nic said gently, sitting down beside the man. His eyes scanned the crowds for the boy even as he waited for Peter’s response.
“Cave-in, at my mine. That’s why I’m here. Looking for a good man to partner with me. I’m onto a nice vein, but I’m livin’ proof that a man’s a fool to mine alone.” He looked at Nic and waited until he met his gaze. “You lookin’ for work?” He cocked his head to the side. “I’m offering a handsome deal. Fifty fifty.”
Nic let a small smile tug at the corners of his mouth. He glanced at the man, who had to be about his own age. There was an easy way about him that drew Nic, despite the pain evident in the lines of his face. “That is a handsome offer.” He cocked his own head. “But I don’t see you doing half the work, laid up like you are.”
“No, not quite. But I’ve already put a lot of work into it in the past three years, and I’m still good for about a quarter of the labor. To say nothing of the fact that my name’s on the claim.”
Nic paused, thinking about it, feeling drawn to help this man, but then shook his head. “I’m not very fond of small dark spaces.”
“So … make it bigger. Light a lamp.”
Nic shook his head, more firmly this time. “No. I’d rather find another line of work.”
Just then he spotted the boy, running the street again. “There he is,” Nic said, nodding outward. The boy’s father followed his gaze and with a grimace, rose to his feet. As they watched, the boy ran under a wagon that had temporarily pulled to a stop. Then he jumped up on the back of another, riding it for about twenty feet until he was passing by them. His face was a mask of elation.
“Everett! Ev! Come on over here!”
Everett’s eyes widened in surprise. He jumped down and ran over to them, causing a man on horseback to pull back hard on his reins and swear.
“Sorry, friend,” Peter said, raising his good arm up to the rider. The horseman shook his head and then rode on.
Peter grabbed his son’s arm and, limping, hauled him over to the boardwalk. “I’ve told you to stay out of the street.”
“So did I,” Nic said, meeting the boy’s gaze. The child flushed red and glanced away.
“We’d best be on our way,” Peter said. “Thanks for helpin’ me find my boy.” He reached out a hand and Nic rose to shake it. Peter paused. “It’s not often a man has a chance at entering a claim agreement once a miner has found a vein that is guaranteed to pay.”
Nic hesitated as he dropped Peter’s hand. “I’ve narrowly escaped with my life on more than one occasion, friend. I’m aiming to look up my sisters, but not from a casket.”
Peter lifted his chin, but his eyes betrayed his weariness and disappointment. What would it mean for him? For his boy, not to find a willing partner? Would they have to give up the mine just as they were finally on the edge of success? And what of the boy’s mother? His unkempt, too-small clothes told him Everett had been without a mother for some time.
He hesitated again, feeling a pang of compassion for them both. “Should I change my mind … where would I find you?”
A glimmer of hope entered Peter’s eyes. “A couple miles out of St. Elmo. Just ask around for the Vaughn claim up in the Gulch and someone’ll point you in our direction.” He reached out a hand. “I’d be much obliged, Nic. And I’m not half bad at cookin’ either. I’d keep you in grub. Give it some thought. But don’t be too put out if you get there, and I’ve found someone else.”
“Understood,” Nic said with a smile. “Safe journey.”
“And to you.” He turned away, tugging at his boy’s shoulder, but the child looked back at Nic, all big pleading eyes.
Hurriedly, Nic walked away in the opposite direction. He fought the desire to turn and call out to them. Wasn’t he looking for work? Something that would allow him to ride on to Bryce and Odessa’s ranch without his tail tucked between his legs? The man had said the mine was sure to pay.… I’m onto a nice vein.…
Was that a miner’s optimism or the truth?
Not yet?” Moira sputtered, following him. She frowned in confusion. He had been coaxing her forward, outward, steadily healing her with his kind attentions these last two months. But now it was as if they were at some strange impasse. What was he talking about? What had happened to him?
She hurried forward and grabbed his arm, forcing him to stop and turn again to face her. Her veil clung to her face in the early evening breeze. “Daniel.”
He slowly lifted his dark eyes to meet hers.
“This is about me, isn’t it?” she asked. “You attempt to spare my feelings but find me repulsive. I can hardly fault you, but—”
“No,” he said, with another hollow laugh. “Contrary to what you believe, Moira St. Clair, not everything boils down to you. You are braver than you think and more beautiful than you dare to believe. I believe we’re destined to be together.”
Moira held her breath. Then what—
“No,” he went on. “This is about something I need to resolve. Something that needs to be done, or at least settled in my mind, my heart, before I can properly court you.”
“What? What is it, Daniel?” she tried once more.
He only looked at her helplessly, mouth half open, but mute.
She crossed her arms and turned her back to him, staring out across the pristine valley, the land of the Circle M. It hurt her that he felt he couldn’t confide in her as she had with him. She stiffened when he laid his big hands on her shoulders. “I don’t need to be rescued, Daniel,” she said in a monotone. “God has seen me to this place, this time. He’ll see me through to the next … with or without you.”
“You don’t understand.”
“No. I don’t. We’ve been courting all summer, whether you realize it or not. And now you say that there is something else that needs to be resolved? You assume much, Daniel Adams. You think that I’ll wait forever?” She let out a scoffing laugh. “It’s clear you do not fear that any other man might pursue me. Not that I blame you …” She turned partly away and stared into the distance. “Please. Don’t let this linger on. I cannot bear it. Not if you do not intend to claim me as your own.”
He was silent for a long minute. Oh, that he would but turn her and meet her lips at last …
But he didn’t. “We both have a lot to think through, pray through, Moira,” he said quietly.
“Yes, well, let me know when that is accomplished,” she said over her shoulder, walking away as fast as she could, lest he see the tears that were already rolling down her cheeks.
©2010 Cook Communications Ministries. Claim by Lisa Bergren. Used with permission. May not be further reproduced. All rights reserved.