Trace was on foot when she saw him again, carrying a saddle over one shoulder, a gloved hand grasping the horn. His hat was pushed to the back of his head, and his pale, sun-streaked hair caught the sunlight. His blue-green eyes flashed bright as sun on water, and the cocky grin she knew oh-so-well curved his mouth. Oh, yes. Even from the other side of Primrose Creek, Bridget knew right off who he was -- trouble.
She had half a mind to go straight into the cabin for Granddaddy's shotgun and send him packing. Might have done it, too, if she hadn't known he was just out of range. The scoundrel had probably figured out what she was thinking, for she saw that lethal grin broaden for a moment, before he tried, without success, to look serious again. He knew he was safe, right enough, long as he kept his distance.
She folded her arms. "You just turn yourself right around, Trace Qualtrough, and head back to wherever you came from," she called.
No effect. That was Trace for you, handsome as the devil himself and possessed of a hide like a field ox. Now, he just tipped the brim of that sorry-looking hat and set his saddle down on the stream bank, as easily as if it weighed nothing at all. Bridget, a young widow who'd spent three months on the trail from St. Louis, with no man along to attend to the heavier chores, knew better.
"Now, Bridge," he said, "that's no way to greet an old friend."
Somewhere inside this blatantly masculine man was the boy she had known and loved. The boy who had taught her to swim, climb trees, and ride like an Indian. The boy she'd laughed with and loved with an innocent ferocity that sometimes haunted her still, in the dark of night, after more than a decade.
Bridget stood her ground, though a fickle part of her wanted to splash through the creek and fling her arms around his neck in welcome, and hardened her resolve. This was not the Trace she remembered so fondly. This was the man who'd gotten her husband killed, sure as if he'd shot Mitch himself. "You just get! Right now."
He had the effrontery to laugh as he bent to hoist the saddle up off the ground. Bridget wondered what had happened to his horse even as she told herself it didn't matter to her. He could walk all the way back to Virginia as far as she cared, long as he left.
"I'm staying," he said, and started through the knee-deep, sun-splashed water toward her without even taking off his boots. "Naturally, I'd rather I was welcome, but your taking an uncharitable outlook on the matter won't change anything."
Bridget's heart thumped against the wall of her chest; she told herself it was pure fury driving her and paced the creek's edge to prove it so. "I declare you are as impossible as ever," she accused.
He laughed again. "Yes, ma'am." Up close, she saw that he'd aged since she'd seen him last, dressed in Yankee blue and riding off to war, with Mitch following right along. There were squint lines at the corners of his blue-green eyes, and his face was leaner, harder than before, but the impact of his personality was just as jarring. Bridget felt weakened by his presence, in a not unpleasant way, and that infuriated her.
Mitch, she thought, and swayed a little. Her bridegroom, her beloved, the father of her three-year-old son, Noah. Her lifelong friend -- and Trace's. Mitch had traipsed off to war on Trace's heels, like a child dancing after a piper, certain of right and glory. And he'd died for that sweet, boyish naïveté of his.
"I've got nothing to say to you," Bridget said to him.
He took off his hat and swiped it once lightly against his thigh, in a gesture that might have been born of either annoyance or simple frustration, the distinction being too fine to determine. "Well," he replied, in a quiet voice that meant he was digging in to outstubborn her, should things come to that pass, "I've got plenty to say to you, Bridget McQuarry, and you're going to hear me out."
His gaze strayed over her shoulder to take in the cabin, such as it was. The roof of the small stone structure had fallen in long before Bridget and Skye, her younger sister, and little Noah had finally arrived at Primrose Creek just two months before, after wintering at Fort Grant, a cavalry installation at the base of the Sierras. Right away, Bridget had taken the tarp off the Conestoga and draped it over the center beam, but it made a wretched substitute. Rain caused it to droop precariously and often dripped through the worn cloth to plop on the bed and table and sizzle on the stove.
Trace let out a low whistle. "I didn't get here any too soon," he said.
Just then, Skye came bounding around the side of the cabin, an old basket in one hand, face alight with pleasure. She was sixteen, Skye was, and all the family Bridget had left, except for her son and a pair of snooty cousins who'd passed the war years in England. No doubt, Christy and Megan had been sipping tea, having themselves fitted for silken gowns, and playing lawn tennis, while Bridget and their granddaddy tried in vain to hold on to the farm in the face of challenges from Yankees and Rebels alike.
Good riddance, she thought. The last time she'd seen Christy, the two of them had fought in the dirt like a pair of cats; they'd been like oil and water the whole of their lives, Christy and Bridget, always tangling over something.
"Trace!" Skye whooped, her dark eyes shining.
He laughed, scooped her into his arms, and spun her around once. "Hello, monkey," he said, with a sort of fond gruffness in his voice, before planting a brotherly kiss on her forehead.
Bridget stood to one side, watching and feeling a little betrayed. She and Skye were as close as two sisters ever were, but if you looked for a resemblance, you'd never guess they were related. Just shy of twenty-one, Bridget was small, with fair hair and skin, and her eyes were an intense shade of violet, "Irish blue," Mitch had called them. She gave an appearance of china-doll fragility, most likely because of her diminutive size, but this was deceptive; she was as agile and wiry as a panther cub, and just about as delicate.
Skye, for her part, was tall, a late bloomer with long, gangly legs and arms. Her hair was a rich chestnut color, her wide-set eyes a deep and lively brown, her mouth full and womanly. She was awkward and somewhat dreamy, and though she was always eager to help, Bridget usually just went ahead and did most things herself. It was easier than explaining, demonstrating, and then redoing the whole task when Skye wasn't around.
"You'll stay, won't you?" Skye demanded, beaming up at Trace. "Please, say you'll stay!"
He didn't so much as glance in Bridget's direction, which, she assured herself impotently, was a good thing for him. "I'm not going anywhere."
Behind the cabin, in the makeshift corral Bridget had constructed from barrels and fallen branches, the new horse neighed. He was her one great hope of earning a living, that spectacular black and white paint. She'd swapped both oxen for him, barely a week before, when a half dozen Paiute braves had paid her an alarming visit. His name, rightfully enough, was Windfall, for she'd certainly gotten the best of the trade. Granddaddy would have been proud.
People would pay good money to have their mares bred to a magnificent horse like Windfall.
Her little mare, Sis, tethered in the grassy shade of a wild oak tree nearby, replied to the stallion's call with a companionable nicker.
A muscle pulsed in Trace's jaw. Even after all that time and trouble, flowing between them like a river, she could still read him plain as the Territorial Enterprise. If there were horses around, Trace was invariably drawn to them. He was known for his ability to train untrainable animals, to win their trust and even their affection. All of which made her wonder that much more how he'd come to be walking instead of riding.
"Where's the boy?" he asked. "I'd like to see him."
Bridget sighed. Maybe if he got a look at Noah, he'd leave. If there was any justice in the world, the child's likeness to his martyred father would be enough to shame even Trace into moving on. "He's inside, taking his nap," she said shortly, and gestured toward the cabin.
"What happened to your horse?" Skye wanted to know. Skye had many sterling traits, but minding her tongue wasn't among them.
"That's a long story," Trace answered. He was already on his way toward the open door of the cabin, and Skye hurried along beside him. "It ends badly, too." He paused at the threshold to kick off his wet boots.
"Tell me," Skye insisted. Her delight caused a bittersweet spill in Bridget's heart; the girl had been withdrawn and sorrowful ever since they'd buried Granddaddy and headed west to claim their share of the only thing he'd had left to bequeath: a twenty-five-hundred-acre tract of land in the high country of Nevada,
sprawled along both sides of a stream called Primrose Creek. Too much loss. They had all seen too much loss, too much grief.
Trace stepped over the high threshold and into the tiny house, just as if he had the right to enter. The place was twelve by twelve, reason enough for him to move on, even if he'd been an invited guest. Which, of course, he wasn't. "He took off," he said. "Nothing but a knothead, that horse."
Bridget, following on their heels, didn't believe a word of it, but she wasn't about to stir up another argument by saying so. Trace would have known better than to take up with a stupid horse, though she wasn't so sure about his taste in women. He'd probably lost the animal in a game of some sort, for he was inclined to take reckless chances and always had been.
Noah, a shy but willful child, so like Mitch, with his wavy brown hair and mischievous hazel eyes, that it still struck Bridget like a blow whenever she looked at him, sat up in the middle of the big bedstead, rubbing his eyes with plump little fists and then peering at Trace in the dim, cool light.
"Papa," he said. "That's my papa."
A strained silence ensued. Bridget merely swallowed hard and looked away. She would have corrected her son, but she didn't trust herself to speak.
Trace crossed the small room and reached out for the boy, who scrambled readily into his arms. The little traitor.
"Well," Trace said, his voice thick with apparent emotion. "Hullo, there."
"He calls everybody 'Papa,'" Bridget blurted, and then, mortified, turned to the stove and busied herself with pots and kettles, so Trace wouldn't see her expression.
Trace chuckled and set his hat on the boy's head, covering him to the shoulders, and Noah's delighted giggle echoed from inside. "Does he, now?"
"Some of the folks in town think Bridget is a fallen woman," Skye announced. "On account of her name still being McQuarry, even though she was married to Mitch. I told her she ought to explain how he was a distant cousin, but -- "
"Skye," Bridget fretted, without turning around. It was too early to fix supper, and yet there she was, ladling bear fat into a pan to fry up greens and onions and what was left of the cornmeal mush they'd had for breakfast.
Trace came to stand beside her, her son crowing in his arms, evidently delighted at being swallowed up in a hat. "He sure does take after Mitch," Trace said. His voice was quiet, low.
Bridget didn't dare even to glance up at him. "More so every day," she agreed, striving for a light note. "I wouldn't say he's easygoing like Mitch was, though. He's got himself a strong will, and something of a temper, too."
"That," Trace said, "would have come from you."
"Skye," Bridget said crisply, as though he hadn't spoken, "go and catch a chicken if you can. And take Noah with you, please."
Skye obeyed without comment, though she might reasonably have pointed out that the two tasks just assigned were in direct conflict with each other. Noah protested a bit, though, not wanting to be parted from Trace -- or, perhaps, his hat.
Then they were alone in the small, shadowy space, side by side. Bridget could feel Trace's gaze resting on her face, but meeting his eyes took some doing. Every time she looked at him, it weakened her somehow, made her want to sit down and fan herself like some scatterbrained girl at a cotillion.
"Why did you come here?" she demanded.
His expression was solemn and, at the same time, intractable. "Because I promised Mitch I would," he said. "Two days before he was drowned, he got your letter telling him Noah had been born. He was happy, of course, but it was hard for him, being so far away. After a while, he turned reflective." Trace paused, rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. "He made me swear I'd look after you, if he didn't make it home."
Bridget knew the details of Mitch's drowning -- Trace had described the scene to her in a letter, his words so vivid that she sometimes forgot that she hadn't been there, hadn't witnessed the tragedy herself -- but the mention of his death brought stinging tears to her eyes all the same. "Damn you," she whispered. "Haven't you done enough?"
He took the spatula from her hand and, grasping her shoulders gently, turned her to face him. "What the devil do you mean by that?" he demanded in a hoarse whisper.
"You know what I mean," Bridget hissed back. "If it hadn't been for you, Mitch would never have gone to war. Noah and I wouldn't have to make our way without him. How dare you come here, like some storybook knight in shining armor, when -- when -- "
"When it was all my fault?" he asked in that same low tone. The words were knife-sharp, for all their softness, honed to a dangerous edge.
It was no use trying to hide her tears, so she didn't make the attempt. For some reason, it seemed all right to cry in front of Trace, though she'd taken great care in the years since the war began to make sure she was alone when she could no longer control her emotions. "Yes!" she cried. "Yes! Mitch wasn't like you. He was guileless and sweet, and he believed everyone else was just as good, just as honest, just as kind. He would have done practically anything you asked him to, and damn you, Trace, you had to know that!"
Trace shoved a hand through that shaggy, light-streaked hair of his. He needed barbering in the worst way, clean clothes, and a bath, too, and for all that, Bridget felt the ancient shame, the powerful, secret pull toward him. She had never confessed that weakness to anyone, could barely acknowledge it to herself.
"Mitch had a mind of his own," he rasped. In his eyes, the ghosts of a hundred fallen soldiers flickered, one of them his best friend from earliest memory. "You make him sound like some kind of idiot. I didn't make him join the fight -- he knew it was something he had to do. Hell, we all did."
They stared at each other for a long moment, like winter-starved bears fixing to tie in, tooth and claw. The air seemed to buzz and crackle at Bridget's ears, and she could feel her own heartbeat thundering in every part of her body. She told herself it was anger and nothing else. Nothing else.
"He had a wife and a child," she said finally. Shakily. "Granddaddy needed him on the farm. We needed him."
"Sweet Lord in heaven, Bridget," Trace reasoned with weary patience, "just about everybody had to leave something or someone behind, Federals and Rebs alike. Did you think you were the only one who made sacrifices?"
Sacrifices? What did he know about sacrifices, with his ready smile and the whole of his life still ahead of him? Bridget wanted to slap the man, but she managed to hold on to her dignity. It wouldn't do to set a bad example for Skye and Noah by resorting to violence, however great the temptation. She sniffed. "I should have known that you wouldn't accept responsibility."
He leaned in until his nose was barely an inch from hers. His eyes seemed to flash with blue and green sparks. "I'll 'accept responsibility' for anything that's my doing," he snapped, "but I'll be damned if I'll let you blame the whole war on me!"
"I don't see how you can stop me," Bridget pointed out. "And I'll thank you not to use profane language in my house."
Color surged up Trace's neck and flared along his beard-stubbled jaw. "You haven't changed, you know that?" And then, just as suddenly as his whole countenance had turned to fury, he grinned, all jovial good nature. "It's good to know that some things -- and some people -- stay the same."
Bridget was reconsidering her previous decision not to slap him. "You can't stay here," she insisted. "It's simply out of the question." She looked around at the humble dwelling, with its dirt floor and oil-barrel cookstove, perhaps a little desperately. Even the bed had been scavenged along the westward trail, left behind by some other family. "This place is hardly big enough for Skye and Noah and me as it is -- there'll be talk in town -- "
"I'll make camp down by the creek," he said. "And if folks have anything to say about my being here, you just send them to me." He heaved a sigh. "Now, I think I'll go out and have a look at those horses of yours, if that's all right with you."
"As if you cared one whit about my opinion on anything," Bridget huffed.
He was still grinning. It was an unfair advantage, that disarming smile of his, bright as noonday sun spilling across clear water. "I've missed you," he said, and then he turned, and when Bridget let herself look, he was gone.
Damned if it wasn't Sentinel, his own horse, penned in behind Bridget's tumbledown shack of a house. At the sight of Trace, the stallion tossed his head and ambled over to greet him with a hard nuzzle to the shoulder.
Trace stroked the stallion's white-splashed brow and spoke in a low voice. "I was afraid our paths might never cross again, fella," he confided. The goose egg on the back of his head pulsed, a reminder of the morning ten days before, when a pack of renegade Paiutes had jumped him in camp. One of them had knocked him out cold, probably with the butt of an army rifle, before he had time to think, but he supposed he ought to be grateful they hadn't relieved him of his boots, saddle, and watch while he was still facedown in the dirt. Not to mention his hair.
Sentinel blew affectionately, and Trace chuckled. "Looks like Miss Bridget's gone to no little trouble to keep you here," he observed, looking askance at the flimsy arrangement of branches and barrels posing as a corral fence. "I guess we oughtn't to tell her you could have gotten out of this with one good kick. You were waiting for me, weren't you, boy?"
Again, the horse nickered, as if to reply in the affirmative.
Trace glanced toward the house; even from outside, he could hear Bridget banging pots and kettles around. He turned his head, saw Skye and Noah chasing a squawking chicken around in the high grass, and smiled at the sight. You did good, Mitch, he thought. He's a fine boy, your Noah.
"Skye!" Bridget called. She was probably in the dooryard, but Trace couldn't see her for the cabin. "Stop that nonsense before you run the meat right off that bird!"
Trace looked heavenward. I'll do my best, he promised. Then he turned back to the horse and patted its long, glistening neck. "You and I, we'll just pretend we're strangers for a while," he said quietly.
The paint pawed the ground with one foreleg and flung his head, but Trace knew he'd go along with the plan, insofar as a horse could be expected to do.
Obediently, Skye closed in on the chicken and held it in both arms, and even from that distance, Trace could make out the bleak expression in her eyes. He moved toward her.
"I don't want to kill it," she confessed, and bit her lower lip. When she grew to be a woman -- she was still just a girl in Trace's eyes, and maybe she always would be -- she would make some lucky man an exceptional wife.
"I'll do it," he said. "You take the boy inside before he meets up with a rattler."
Skye nodded and smiled up at him with her eyes. "Thanks, Trace," she said softly, and leaned down to take Noah's small hand. Then, tentatively, she touched Trace's arm. "I'm glad you're here. Bridget is, too, even if she can't make herself admit it. You won't let her run you off, will you?"
He glanced toward the cabin, with its pitiful canvas roof. Bridget had gone back inside to slam things around some more. That woman was hell on hardware. "She always make this much noise when she cooks?"
Skye laughed and shook her head. "No, sir. That particular commotion is in your honor for sure and certain," she said, and set off through the high, sweet grass, the boy scrambling along behind her.
That night, sitting on stumps and crates under a black sky prickled with stars, they ate fried chicken for supper, along with cornmeal cakes and greens, and Trace could not recall a finer meal. He probably hadn't had home-cooked food since before he joined the army, though he'd developed a taste for it as a boy. All the while he was growing up, he'd eaten with the McQuarrys whenever he was invited, which was often. Even back then, before she picked up and left, his mother hadn't troubled herself much where such things were concerned. Tillie Qualtrough had been a loose woman, plain and simple, and she'd taken to camp following long before the war came and made a profitable enterprise of the habit.
All things taken into consideration, though, he couldn't see any sense in faulting Tillie for the choices she'd made. She'd been alone in the world, with nothing to trade on but her looks. She'd done what she had to, that was all, and despite her circumstances, which would have turned a lot of people bitter, she'd been kind-hearted and quick to laugh.
"That's a fine stallion you've got there," Trace observed, when he'd eaten all he decently could. It seemed a safe topic to him, unrelated as it was to Mitch or to his staying on at Primrose Creek. "Where'd you get him?"
Bridget's face softened at the mention of the animal; ever since she was a little girl, she'd loved critters the way some people do art or music or going to church. "I swapped the oxen for him," she said, obviously proud of the deal. "I mean to breed him to my mare, Sis, and some others and eventually start myself a horse ranch."
Trace raised his blue enamel coffee mug to his mouth, more because he wanted to hide his smile than because he needed any more of the brew. He'd be awake half the night as it was, remembering. Regretting. "I see," he said. "I guess you wouldn't consider plain farming."
She sat up straight on the crate she'd taken for a chair, her half-filled plate forgotten on her lap. "Farming," she scoffed. "This is timber country. Mining country. Ranch country."
"We've got a nice vegetable patch, though," Skye put in, and there was an anxious note in her voice, putting Trace in mind of somebody stepping between two opposing forces in the faint hope of keeping them from colliding. "Potatoes. Squash -- " Her words fell away, like pebbles vanishing down the side of a precipice.
"You might not turn a profit for some time," Trace observed, watching Bridget. "How do you intend to eat this winter?"
He knew he'd touched a nerve, for all that she tried to disguise the fact with her trademark bravado. "We might sell some of the timber. Mr. Jake Vigil is building a house and a sawmill at the edge of town, and he'll be wanting trees."
Trace assessed the towering ponderosa pines and firs surrounding them, blue-black shadows marching as far as the eye could see, in every direction. "Doesn't look to me like he'd have any trouble getting all the lumber he wanted," he said. He didn't mean there wouldn't be a market for McQuarry timber -- not exactly, anyway -- but Bridget took it that way and ruffled her feathers like a little partridge, making it necessary to take another sip of coffee.
"We have flour and salt. We have a shotgun for hunting, and thanks to a friend in town, we've got enough chickens to provide eggs and" -- she looked down at her food -- "the occasional feast. We will do just fine, thank you."
Trace suppressed a sigh. He'd known this encounter wouldn't be easy, but he'd been afoot for the best part of a week, and before that he'd spent so much time in the saddle that for a while there, he'd thought he might turn bow-legged. He was in no mood to grapple with a stiff-backed little spitfire like Bridget McQuarry.
You promised, Mitch's memory reminded him.
Yes, damn it, I promised. And I'll keep my word.
"I'll need some timber for that roof," he said in measured tones. "You have a saw? An ax, at least?"
Bridget pursed her lips, just briefly, but she looked pretty, even in a sour pose. Motherhood lent her a softness of the sort a man can't really help noticing, no matter how hard he might try. "We can build our own roof," she said. "Skye and I will do it ourselves."
Trace rolled his eyes, but he kept a hold on his patience. Skye offered no comment but busied herself gathering up a fretful Noah and herding him inside to be swabbed down and put to bed. "And a fine job you've done, too," he said dryly, nodding to indicate the canvas stretched across the top of the house. "Roof building, I mean."
Even in the thickening twilight, he saw her color heighten. It made something grind painfully, deep inside him, seeing that. Instead of speaking, though, she just got up and started collecting the tin plates.
"Why can't you just admit that you need help?" he asked, very quietly.
She straightened, and he saw -- or thought he saw -- tears glimmering in her eyes. "Oh, I can admit that, Mr. Qualtrough," she said. "I've got a child and a young sister to feed and clothe. I have this house and this land and two horses and nothing else. I need help, all right. I just don't need it from you."
He sighed again. "You hate me that much?"
"No," she answered, stiffening that ramrod spine of hers. "I'm completely indifferent."
"You have to have a roof, Bridget. My being here would mean protection for Skye and Noah, if you won't accept it for yourself. And somebody has to train that stallion. You're good with horses, you always were, but you're too small to handle him, and you know it."
She was silent.
He pressed the advantage. "This is what Mitch wanted," he said reasonably. "How can I ignore that? How can you?"
The plates rattled in her hands, and she wouldn't look at him. "You'll train the stallion -- put on a roof -- build a barn?"
"That and more," he agreed.
She caught her upper lip between her teeth, something she'd done ever since he could remember. And that was a long time, since the McQuarry farm had bordered the little patch of no-account land where Trace and his mother had lived in what had once been slave quarters.
"No. Nothing more. You do those things, and we'll be all right. It'll ease your conscience, and you'll move on like you ought."
He stood, faced her, cupped her chin in one hand. "What are you so scared of, Bridge?" he asked. "You must know you have nothing to fear from me, not on your account and not on Skye's."
Her eyes flashed in the starlight; for a moment, he thought she was going to insult his honor by saying she was afraid of him, but when it came down to cases, she nodded. "I know that," she whispered. "It's just that -- well, every time I look at you, I think of Mitch. I think of how he might have stayed home -- "
Trace let her chin go. "Stayed home and done what?" he asked, at the edge of his patience. "Planted cotton and corn and sweet potatoes? Milked cows?"
Bridget pulled away. "There is no use in our discussing this," she said, her tone on the peevish side. Then she snatched the coffee mug out of his hand, turned, and strode toward the cabin. If the boy hadn't been asleep by then, or close to it, anyway, he knew she'd have slammed the door smartly behind her.
He watched as the lanterns winked out inside the house, first one, and then the other, and the sight gave him a lonely feeling, as if he were set apart from everything warm and sweet and good. It wasn't the first time he'd felt like that; as a boy, he'd yearned to be one of the McQuarrys, instead of some long-gone stranger's illegitimate son. During the war, far from the land and the people he knew, he'd ached inside, ached to go back to the Shenandoah Valley. After Mitch was drowned in the river that day, his horse shot out from under him, things had been a whole lot worse.
For a long time, he just sat there, mourning. Then, slowly, he turned his back on the cabin and headed for the makeshift camp he'd set up a hundred yards away, in the shelter of several tall oak trees growing alongside the creek. Rummaging in his saddlebags, he got out his spare shirt and a sliver of yellow soap. He kicked off his boots, still damp from his crossing earlier in the day, and then, downstream a little way, where he was sure he was out of sight of the house, he shed his clothes and waded, teeth chattering, into the icy waters of Primrose Creek. He made necessarily quick work of his bath, dried off with his dirty shirt, and pulled his trousers back on, his mind occupied, the whole time, with Bridget.
God only knew what she'd say when he told her they were getting married.
Copyright © 2001 by Linda Lael Miller
The Women of Primrose Creek (Omnibus)
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