Dorothy Garlock - [Annie Lash 03] (6 page)

About six feet out in the river a young doe, with large frightened brown eyes, struggled to free herself from the reeds.

“Her leg is broken,
chérie.

“Ah . . . how did she do that?”

“She was frightened by something up there and”—he looked toward the rocky shelf—“jumped to the beach, broke her leg, and dragged herself to the water. She was here before it rained, there are no tracks.”

“What’ll we do, Light?”

Light looked upriver and down. He scanned the area in every direction before he spoke.

“We camp here. We need food.”

“Ya’ll kill her?”

“Yes. Quickly. If not, she will die slowly. Leave our packs over there on the high ground. Take the horses to water downstream, then hobble them in that grassy patch.”

Maggie moved the animals away from the river, not wanting to see the necessary death of the doe. The horses followed her as if they were pets. She took off the blankets and the burden straps that held their packs and moved them next to the bluff. Murmuring softly to urge them to follow, she led them upriver.

When she returned, Light had removed his clothes and had waded naked into the river with his knife clamped between his teeth.

While Light butchered the deer, Maggie built a fire using dry cedar knots and splinters. It burned with a clear hot flame and gave off little smoke. She strung hunks of the meat on a green willow stick and hung it over the fire. Other chunks she prepared for burial in the hot coals to cook overnight. Light dragged the rest of the carcass out to let the current carry it downriver.

Still naked, he waded out into the river beyond the reeds and, using a hand line, cast a hook to which he had tied a bit of the deer liver as a lure. The hook had scarcely hit the water when it was struck by a giant pike. In a short time Light had caught a bass and a small white catfish. He knelt at the water’s edge and cleaned his catch on a flat rock.

After washing himself in the muddy river, Light dressed. Maggie, thinking of the clear pool she bathed in at home and the clear streams they had used since beginning their journey, refused to immerse herself in the muddy water. She removed her britches and shirt and washed herself while squatting on the shore.

Later, after eating their fill of the meat and fish, they lay on a blanket in the soft sand. When night fog began to rise from the river in wispy patches, Light covered them with their extra blanket to hold off the damp chill. All was quiet and peaceful; the fog surrounded them like a cloak.

Light held Maggie close to his side, her head on his shoulder, her arm across his chest. Visions of her fighting the Indian had weighed upon him all day. His stomach lurched when he thought of how close she had come to death and, in reaction, his arm tightened around her.

Two attackers were dead, and this was only the beginning of their journey. Had he been foolish and stupid to bring her into the wilderness? But to have left her behind would have broken her heart and his. For a long moment he considered taking her back to St. Charles and homesteading a piece of land there. How long would he be able to endure planting, plowing, raising hogs on a plot of land? How long before Maggie would again be called a witch for her “odd” ways? New folks would be moving in. Would they want to burn her as the folks in Kentucky had been ready to do?

“My treasure, are you asleep?”

“I was thinkin’ of the deer, Light. It made me sad ya had to kill her.”

“She gave her life so that we could eat. If not us, the wolves would have had her so that they could eat. It’s nature’s way, love.”

“I know. I’ll try not t’ think of it anymore.”

“Listen to me,
chérie.
You were almost killed today.”

“But I wasn’t. I knew what I could do.”

“We will face danger as we did today many more times. We should think about going back to St. Charles.” Light spoke the words softly and held his breath while he waited for her answer.

It was a long time coming. Maggie lay perfectly still, then lifted herself so that she could peer down into his face even though she could see only the shape of it.

“Ya don’t want t’ take me t’ yore mountain? Am I a bother t’ ya, Light?”

“Ah,
chérie!
You are my life, my joy. But I fear that I might fail to keep you safe.”

“I can help, Light. I’ll practice with the bow and the whip and the knife.”

“If we go back, you can be with your ma and pa, with Biedy Cornick, who makes you pie. You can visit with Callie and Annie Lash. When winter comes, you’ll be safe and warm and your belly full of roasted goose and suet pudding.”

Maggie was silent for a long while—and still. Only her fingers moved, stroking his cheeks.

“But ya’d not be there.”

“Ah . . . my treasure. I long for my mountain.”

“I want what you want, Light. I’m yore mate. We promised each other. And . . . when winter comes t’ our mountain, we’ll roast a goose an’ make suet pudding.”

“It will be a long journey.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“We are not yet half-way to the mountains,” Light said with a deep sigh.

“I don’t care.” Maggie fitted her small body tightly to his. “I belong with you.”

While his wife slept beside him, Light stared into the foggy night. The Missouri rolled on past them out of the distant land he longed to see.

He had heard the astounding stories of snow-peaked mountains, green meadows and sparkling streams from men who had returned with the Lewis and Clark expedition. They had never before seen beaver like the ones in the streams coming down from the mountains—beaver that had never been hunted sat out in the open and gaped at you, they said. And the mountains were ragged and beautiful beyond belief.

“I love you,” he whispered to the woman cuddled against him. “We will go on to our mountain together. If we should die on the way, we will be together.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Dawn came swiftly.

High above the river, a pair of hawks swooped and circled in amorous pursuit of each other. A pleasant slap, slap, slapping sound came from fish frolicking in the river beyond the reeds. Always when he first awakened, he listened.

Light lifted his head to look out over the muddy water, then up and down the river. The horses stood sleeping next to the cliff. Satisfied that everything seemed to be as it should, he gazed down into the face of the woman pressed tightly against him, depending on him for warmth and protection. Just looking at her filled him with intense pleasure.

Every day that Light was with Maggie he learned something new and puzzling about her. Not only was she spunky and quick-thinking, she was braver than any woman he’d ever known. She had calmly stood her ground against the Delaware, a man twice her size. Could it be true that she
was
a witch? She had certainly bewitched him.

He chuckled softly, reveling in a happiness he had never expected to have. He had loved his first wife, Little Bird, with all the love a young boy had to give. When she was killed, his grief was deep. But the love he felt now, a man’s love for this wild child, filled every corner of his heart. Light pressed his lips to her forehead and tasted the sweetness of her flesh. She stirred and the blanket slipped down, exposing her soft naked breasts peeking through the dark silky hair that lay in a tangle over her shoulders and curled between the soft white mounds.

A rush of warm blood through his veins spread an unwanted arousal thoughout his body. Reason won out over his hunger to gather her close in his arms and seek the “sweet hurty feeling,” as she called their lovemaking. Green was fading from the tops of the oak trees and soon leaves would fall. He and Maggie must make every day of good weather count if they were to reach the bend in the river and fashion a shelter for winter.

“Wake up, my treasure.” His whisper came against her ear as his palm stroked her breast. “It’s a fine day.”

“I’m awake. Ya were lookin’ at me.”

“How do you know? Your eyes were closed.”

“I can see ya with my eyes shut,” she whispered, and he believed her.

Her arms moved around his neck. She reached for his lips and pressed hers firmly against them. He kissed her back, slowly, deeply, enjoying the way she gave herself to him so freely. He stroked her arm and shoulder and kissed her froth of hair over and over again.

After a while, Light lifted his head and looked down into her face framed in the mass of tumbled ringlets. Her smile was pure enchantment. Was this fairy-like creature from another world? Another time? Light felt himself to be in some kind of warm paradise. He looked down at her searchingly for a long moment, then dipped his head to kiss her face once more. Slowly he shook his head.

“I’m tempted to stay here in the blankets with you till the sun goes down. But it would be foolish,
chérie.
We have many miles to travel before the snow comes.”

Maggie stretched herself to her full length, her arms still about his neck.

“Don’t ya want t’ stay and make love with me? I want t’ be with you . . . like that, Light.” Her fingers feathered over the evidence of his desire.

Her frankness always amazed, aroused and amused him. He had never heard a man say his woman had asked him to mate with her. Light considered himself the luckiest of men. Reluctantly he pulled back from her searching hand.

“We’ll have long cold winters on our mountain, my pet. We’ll lie in our blankets all day and all night and make love whenever you want. But now, my lady of the woods, we must break camp and travel.”

He pulled the blanket off her naked body and stood. Maggie jumped up and grabbed for the blanket. Light twisted away from her, laughing, holding the blanket out of her reach.

“No. No, sweet one. Get dressed. Someone beside your husband is looking at you.”

“Who? Who?” Maggie spun around, her crossed arms over her naked breasts.

“Squirrel. Up there.” Light pointed to a tree branch threw back his head and laughed.

“Pooh on ya, Mr. Squirrel.”

Maggie spread her arms and, naked as the day she was born, bowed to her husband and began to dance. She dipped and swayed and skipped on the sandbar to the tune she was singing.

 

“Squirrel in the big tree, what’ll I do?

Squirrel in the big tree, what’ll I do?

Squirrel in the big tree, what’ll I do?

What’ll I do, my darlin’?”

 

Mesmerized, Light watched his child-wife. She danced with such innocence. He was dazzled by the sight of her white, bare flesh, the symmetry of her rose-tipped breasts, rounded bottom and slim legs. Her red mouth smiled. Her tangle of dark hair floated around her white shoulders. Beholding her perfection, Light decided that no one of this world could express her emotions with such swift honesty as his Maggie. Then she whirled into his arms.

Only with her physical warmth pressed against him, her arms about his neck, her mouth lifted to his, could he convince himself she was a flesh-and-blood woman. He lifted her off the ground and swung her around before he sat her down. Then he hungrily kissed the mouth she offered and lightly slapped her on her bare bottom.

“—Get yourself dressed, my sweet naked nymph!” He patted the top of her head and stroked the soft curve of her breasts. “Now obey me.”

“I do what ya say, Light, for . . . now.” Her musical laugh came against the flesh of his neck.

He was reluctant to let her go even though he had ordered her to get dressed. He turned his eyes away as she quickly stepped into her britches and pulled her shirt on over her head.

In a happy mood, they ate the deer meat and drank hot tea from their one cup. When they had finished, Light carefully packed the remainder of the meat and fish. It was enough to last for several days. They would not go hungry. In the forest were a dozen kinds of wild fruits, ranging from persimmons to chokecherries and enormous grapevines with clusters of their ripening fruit. Light knew where to find wild peas, onions and root vegetables to make a thick stew. The wild served up a banquet for those who knew where to find it.

When their packs were ready and Light had started to fasten the burden straps on their horses, flocks of waterfowl rose from the river to circle in wild, noisy confusion.

“Something’s coming.” Light looked downriver and then hastily kicked sand onto the remains of their campfire.

Shouldering the packs and motioning for Maggie to lead their horses, he hurried with her up the embankment and into the shelter of the woods.

“Who’s comin’, Light?”

“Stay here,” was his only answer. He dropped the packs. Taking his spyglass, he went back to the edge of the woods and squatted among the foliage.

Maggie tied the horses and silently slipped through the woods to kneel down beside Light. If her man was in danger she was going to be beside him. The quiver of arrows rested on her back, the bow on one shoulder and the coiled whip on the other. Her knife was in the scabbard at her waist. Her green eyes questioned him when he looked down at her.

“I stay with ya, Light,” she declared.

Light frowned. “When I put you somewhere, Maggie, I expect to go back and find you there.” He lifted the glass back to his eye.

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