Arkansas, January 1868
"Whoa!" Jasper Longtree leaned back on the reins and pulled the stout team of horses to a stop in the middle of the muddy crossroads. "We're here." The lanky farmer raised a gnarled hand and pointed to a weathered sign nailed to the trunk of a white oak tree. "The holler's down the hill. I can't take you any closer because of the mud," he shouted, making himself heard over the rumble of thunder.
Elizabeth Eastgate stared past the sign to another rutted track that left the intersection and plunged down a steep hillside. Her spirits plummeted right along with it as she traced the road to its end. A bleak cluster of weather-beaten houses clung to the sides of a broad bowllike depression. Devil's Hollow. Well, the name certainly fits.
Taking in the stark, winter-naked landscape, she tightened her grip on the battered satchel and allowed Jasper to help her down. It was worse than she had imagined, but at least her journey was over. Now it was up to her to make the best of it.
She pasted a smile on her face and turned to the stick-thin, gray haired man who stood beside her.
"Thank you, Jasper. I don't know how I would have gotten here without you."
The farmer shook his head. "I'm not sure you ought to thank me for bringing you to this godforsaken place." Muttering to himself, he removed her black horsehide trunk from the wagon bed and placed it on a patch of dried grass at the edge of the muddy road. "Miz Elizabeth, I don't feel right about goin' off and leavin' you here all by yourself. Are you sure somebody is comin' to meet you?"
Beth rummaged in her reticule for the tattered letter. She held it up, as much to reassure herself as the man standing beside her. "Logan Winfield wrote that he would provide my transportation from here." She tucked the envelope away.
"Logan Winfield?" The man frowned. "Well, if you're sure?"
"I'll be fine," Beth said with a lot more confidence than she felt. "Goodbye, Jasper." She held out her hand.
The farmer grasped it in a hearty handshake. He hesitated before releasing her. "Ma'am, if you ever need anything..." When she smiled, he shrugged, then climbed aboard his wagon. "Anyhow, good luck to you." He shook his head. "You'll need it," he added softly.
Beth locked her jaws to keep her lips from quivering as the kindly man drove out of sight. A brisk gust of January wind moaned down the mountainside and cut through her threadbare coat, making her shiver. She clutched the front of the garment closer and gave thanks that the Arkansas weather wasn't as cold as Chicago at this time of year.
As she tightened the strings of her worn, brown velvet bonnet, her fingers automatically went to the brooch she wore at the neck of her dress. Touching the ivory cameo, her only link to a mother she'd never known, somehow gave her comfort. She stared around her. Well, I'm here. Now what?
A short distance away in a copse of trees on the knob of a small hill, she spied a dwelling she hadn't noticed before. The sight encouraged her until she realized no smoke rose from the chimney and the dark windows showed no sign of life. To make matters worse, the rumble of thunder in the dark clouds overhead told her the rain would not hold off for long.
She tugged the coat front tighter. Where was he? Since Mr. Winfield had answered her letter, in which she'd stated the date of her arrival, she'd expected someone to be waiting for her. She certainly hadn't counted on being left all alone in the middle of nowhere. Thunder boomed again. "Well, do something, Elizabeth. You can't stand in the road all night."
She pulled her feet free of the oozing muck and glanced down the slick hill at the hollow. Mr. Winfield, or whoever was supposed to meet her, was probably waiting at the settlement. She squared her shoulders then eyed her book-laden trunk with dismay. She'd have to leave it. It was all she could do to carry the cumbersome satchel.
Discovering she could avoid most of the mire by stepping from one patch of dead weeds to another, she clasped the handle of the bulging bag and headed for the community at the base of the hill.
"Ma'am! Wait up, ma'am."
She turned and peered over the top of her gold-rimmed spectacles.
A young man in faded denim overalls emerged from the cover of the trees and hurried his mouse-colored mule toward her.
"Are you Miz Eastgate?" he drawled.
Smiling her relief, Beth nodded. "Are you Logan Winfield?"
"Me?" The grinning youth shoved back a battered felt hat and dismounted. "Shucks no. I'm Nate Winfield. Logan's my brother. He sent me to fetch you."
Fetch her? Puzzled, she scanned the area behind him. "I don't see your wagon."
"That's 'cause I don't have one, ma'am. It's winter. A wagon'd need wings to get through these hills."
"Molly here will carry us." He slapped the mule's rump.
"You expect me to ride that animal?" Catching a baleful gleam in the mule's eye, Beth took a step backward. She shook her head. "I can't. I don't know how." Grasping at any excuse that might suffice, she pointed down the road. "Besides, I can't leave my baggage. It's going to rain."
"I'll tote your trunk to the Lathams' rooming house. Logan can fetch it later." Ignoring her protests, he shoved the reins into her hands, then strode to her trunk and hoisted it on his shoulder. He carried it to the unoccupied house she'd seen earlier, opened the front door, and deposited the chest inside.
Dusting his hands together, he ambled toward her. He pointed at the sky. "I guess we'd better be goin'. With a storm comin' it'll be dark soon. Are you ready?"
"There's no other way?" When he shook his head, her heart thudded uneasily. The mule looked tall as a mountain and mean as Satan. Furthermore she couldn't imagine any way, short of sprouting wings, to get aboard the animal. "How do I...?"
"I'll help you."
Before she had a chance to change her mind, the boy's hands closed around her waist and she found herself lifted high in the air and plopped astride the mule. She bent to tug at her skirts, which had risen to her knees, and glimpsed the ground far below her. "My stars!" She quickly righted herself and clutched the saddle horn, trying not to think of her perilous perch, or the immodest length of stockinged leg she'd been unable to cover. After tying her satchel to the saddle pommel, Nate mounted behind her. "All set?" he asked. When she nodded, he reached around her and picked up the reins. "Giddap, Molly."
The mule took off at a stiff-legged-gait that threatened to loosen Beth's teeth. Praying she didn't fall off, she held on for dear life.
Instead of going toward the settlement as she'd expected, Nate guided the mule through a thick stand of trees, following a narrow path that wound steadily upward, reaching the crest of one hill only to dip into the valley of another.
The icy mist that had begun to fall soon seeped through Beth's thin coat to saturate the scratchy, woolen dress underneath. She wiped the raindrops from the lenses of her glasses and stared bleakly at the black skeletons of trees surrounding them. Devil's Hollow. Overwhelmed by this place of brooding, mist-covered mountains and dark valleys, she shuddered.
Footing became treacherous and Nate slowed the mule as they eased down the rain-slick trail into the depths of a canyon.
The valley narrowed into a steep-sided gorge, a dark cavity cut into the ground with its trees forced to stretch to great heights in order to reach the sun. The odor of rotting vegetation, pungent mule hide, and wet wool filled the damp air.
The only daylight Beth saw edged the top of a rim, but when they reached it, it wasn't the crest at all but a bench of rock with others leading steplike up to a higher, flat plateau.
Now out of the sheltering recesses of the canyon, cold drops of rain pelted them anew. Water trickled in a steady stream down the rims of Beth's bonnet, joining to make an icy trail down her spine.
She drooped wearily and would have toppled from the saddle if not for Nate's arms supporting her.
After jolting over rough, rutted roads in the wagon for the better part of a week, every bone in her body ached. Now, forced to ride the mule, she felt the skin on her inner thighs throbbing, rubbed raw by the friction of the wet leather. She gritted her teeth to stifle a pain-filled moan. How much farther? She prayed she could hold out.
"We're almost there," Nate said sympathetically. He pointed to a ridge that loomed in front of them.
Through the gloom, Beth saw the faint glow of a lantern-lit window. They left the woods and zigzagged around a series of stacked log fences that edged the only flat spot on the mountain.
Nate halted the mule in front of a tall, angular house perched on stilt-like piers of stacked rocks. "We're here," he shouted toward the house. Hearing his voice, a half-dozen long-eared dogs raced from beneath the dwelling. Snarling and barking they surrounded the mule.
The door of the house crashed backward against the wall and four shrieking children of various ages exploded from the light-filled opening. "Teacher! Teacher!" Pushing and shoving, each fought to be the first to reach them.
To her horror, Nate lifted Beth from the mule and set her in the middle of the din. Then, apparently oblivious to her plight, he led the mule away and vanished into the darkness.
"I'll take you," cried a small boy, tugging at Beth's arm.
"No, let me," another child screamed. She jerked Beth backward, ripping the sleeve of her coat.
The excited dogs lunged, snapping at Beth's legs and skirts. "Get away," she cried.
"Let go, Rowdy! Stop it, Belle!" an older girl shouted.
"Please, stop," Beth pleaded. Exhausted and half-frozen, pushed and pulled by the youngsters, her heels nipped by the baying hounds, Beth could feel her fortitude dissolve. Unable to help herself, she covered her face and burst into tears.
"Now look what you did," the little boy said, fighting to retain his hold on Beth's bag.
"You did it, not me." The smaller girl gave him a shove.
"That's enough!" a man bellowed.
Instantly the gathering grew quiet. Grateful to be rescued, Beth glanced toward the rickety porch.
A bearded man, so tall and broad that his silhouette blocked most of the flaring light, stood beside a woman so tiny she looked like an elderly elf. Observing Beth, the man snorted his disgust. "Hell, I should have known it," he muttered. Shaking his head, he stomped down the steps and vanished into the gloom.
Beth stared after him, resentfully wondering who he was.
The old woman wiped her hands on her apron and hurried forward. "Get along with ye." She waved her hand, shooing the children and dogs away like they were a flock of stray chickens.
Even though Beth herself was small, the old woman barely topped her shoulder. Wild, white hair stood in an undisciplined halo around a face wrinkled as a sun-dried apple, but the woman's blue eyes were bright as a child's. Like a diminutive general, the elderly voice barked orders at the unruly brood before her. Then she wrapped clawlike fingers around Beth's arm, and her tone softened. "Pur little thing needs some tending to. Come along, dear. Granny Jo will see to ye."
Feeling as though she'd been dropped onto a strange planet, Beth allowed herself to be led through the rain to the tall house. The children followed quietly behind them.
Beth found the dwelling was as peculiar as the people. Only one story, but tall and peaked, the house was divided by a dogtrot, a wide, open hall that ran through the middle. With no doors to keep them out, that same area was occupied by various cats, chickens, and a variety of sleeping long-eared dogs.
Once inside, Beth had her coat and hat removed and was seated in a cane rocking chair in front of a huge, rock-fronted fireplace. All accomplished before she could blink.
She held her hands toward the pine-scented blaze, savoring the crackling heat that sent steam from the wet wool of her dress. Regaining her composure, she surveyed the room, curious about the place that would be her home for the next month or so. Although the house wasn't overly large, massive beams supporting the walls and roof showed it to be more solidly constructed than it first appeared.
Serving as the parlor, the area where she now sat held two rocking chairs and a smaller table and bench. Pegs and shelves on the honey-colored pine walls displayed a variety of clothing, wood carvings, and assorted knickknacks. Multicolored braided rugs made bright splashes against the dark floorboards.
At the far end, where the old lady scurried about, a huge, nickel-plated cook stove dominated a space containing various cupboards and a long, planked dining table with matching benches.
Even though the room appeared cluttered, it had a homey quality that Beth found comforting.
"Now, dear, while you're gettin' thawed, have a bite of this." The elderly woman placed a dish with a large slab of fragrant gingerbread in Beth's hands. "It'll warm your innards." She then set a steaming mug on the table by her side. "Sassafras tea. Guaranteed to cure whatever ails ye."
"Thank you." Beth smiled, hoping to ease the old woman's anxious expression. "I'm feeling better now." Embarrassed by her loss of control, Beth tried to explain. "I'm so ashamed. I guess I'm just tired from the trip. I'm sorry."
The woman patted her hand. "Nothin' to be sorry about. The first time I saw this place, when I came as a bride sixty-five years ago, I cried like a baby. It ain't changed much since."
Beth held out her hand. "I'm Elizabeth Eastgate."
The old woman extended her own withered, blue-veined hand. "Josephine Winfield. But everybody hereabouts calls me Granny Jo." She tilted her head. "Lizabet. That's a purty name."
Granny Jo turned and motioned to the solemn-faced children who had lined up along the wall. "This here's Sally Mae. She's fourteen."
A tall stringy-haired blond girl stepped forward and gave Beth a shy smile.
"This one is Ruth. She's nine."
Thin as a stick, with pale lemon-colored hair, Ruth wiped a hand across her rain-streaked face and smiled broadly.
Granny ruffled the dark hair of a grinning, snaggle-toothed boy. "Joseph, here, is six."
Beth smiled and greeted each of them in turn.
"You talk funny," Joseph said.
"That's because I came from Chicago," Beth answered. "People from different places talk differently," she explained, feeling herself drawn to the child. Although they didn't look anything alike, he reminded her of Teddy. Thinking of her home, and the small boy she'd left behind, she sadly wondered how Teddy was faring without her.
"The one with no manners is Seth. He's ten. Get yourself over here and say hello to your teacher," Granny Jo instructed.
A skinny boy with dark eyes gave her a reluctant greeting then immediately returned his attention to the piece of wood he was whittling.
"You've met Nate. He's sixteen, but thinks he's growed."
"Since you're doing the honors, Granny Jo, you can introduce me," said a voice entering with a blast of cold air.
Behind her spectacles, Beth warily recognized the man she'd seen earlier on the porch.
"Was ye borned in a barn?" Granny Jo complained.
The man kicked the door closed, then removed his hat and coat and hung them on a peg. Brass-colored hair hung long and shaggy to his collar. He smoothed a lock away from intense blue eyes then ran a tanned hand down his face to wipe the rain from his cheeks and beard. He stepped forward. Dwarfing both the room and its furnishings, he loomed over her, the contempt he felt plainly etched in the rugged lines of his face.
"This is Logan, my oldest grandson," Granny Jo said proudly.
Logan? Logan Winfield! The man who had hired her! Determined not to be put off by his appearance, or his manner, Beth tried to control her trembling as she placed her plate on the table beside her cup. She stood and held out her hand. "I'm Miss Elizabeth Eastgate," she said primly.
Through the rust-colored beard, his lip curled in a cynical smile. His wet hand engulfed hers. "So I gathered." Then, releasing her as if he found her touch distasteful, he crossed his arms. His slate-blue eyes started at the top of her head and roamed to her toes and back again, making her flush with indignation. "Well, Miss Elizabeth," he drawled in a deep voice. "It appears like you bit off more than you can chew." He raised his callused hand and stroked his whiskered chin. "We'll give you a day or two to rest up, then you can go back to Chicago."
Shocked, Beth stared at him. Back to Chicago? Just like that? Leave? After all the hellish torture she'd gone through to get here? Not likely!
Her backbone stiffening with outrage, Beth pulled herself rigidly to her full five-foot, one-inch height. "Mr. Winfield, I thought we had an agreement. Six months. A trial period, you called it in your letter. Now, after barely making my acquaintance, you plan to send me packing?" She shook her head, loosening curly, wet tendrils that escaped from the tightly pinned knot and sprouted like corkscrews around her face. "I think not."
The thinning of his lips only made her more determined. "You see, Mr. Winfield, I won't go." Her hands on her hips, she took a step toward him. "I signed your contract. Now I intend to hold you to your word." Ignoring the way his smoke-blue eyes darkened, she took another step.
Glaring up at him, she raised her index finger and jabbed his rock-hard chest. "Six months from now--if I have not performed in a satisfactory manner--you may dismiss me. But not one day before!"
Hearing a gasp, Beth whirled to see the others staring open-mouthed, first at her, then at Logan.
Shocked to her senses, she turned to see his brow wrinkle into a thunderous scowl. Terrified by his reaction to her outlandish behavior, Beth took a step backward, bumping into Granny Jo in her haste to retreat.
As she watched the tall backwoodsman clench and unclench his fists, Beth's breath caught in her throat. She raised a trembling hand to cover her mouth.
His gleaming eyes probed hers for a long moment, then, without a word, he spun on his heel and slammed out the door.
When the big mountain man left the room, Beth's shaking legs dissolved beneath her. She crumpled into the rocking chair.
"Well, well." Granny Jo stared thoughtfully at the door. Then, she eyed Beth, her wrinkled face splitting in a delighted grin. "Lizabet, I think you'll do just fine."