Sunset Embrace(4)

By: Sandra Brown


"I'll put a boulder over.it so the animals won't get to it," Zeke said solemnly and began to scoop out a shallow grave with the small spade he had brought with him. "How's the girl?" he asked when he was done, wiping his hands on a bandanna handkerchief.

"Still bleeding, but I've got her packed tight We've done all we can do here. Can you carry her?"

"If you can help hoist her up."

The girl came to life and protested, flailing her arms weakly when Zeke hooked her under the knees and behind her back and lifted her to his thin chest. Then the slender limbs fell away and she went lifeless again. Her throat arched as her head fell back over his arm.

"Ain't her hair funny lookin', though," Zeke commented, not unkindly.

"Can't say I ever seen any that color before," Ma replied absently as she picked up the things they had brought with them. "We'd best hurry. It's startin' to rain again."

* * *

The place between her thighs burned. Her throat was scratchy and sore. She felt hot and achy all over. Yet there was a pervading sense of comfort surrounding her. She was dry and warm. Had she made it to heaven after all? Had the towheaded boy left her alone to die? Was that why she felt so safe and peaceful? But in heaven one wasn't supposed to know pain, and she was hurting.

She pried her eyes open. A white canvas ceiling curved above her. A lantern was burning low on a box near the pallet on which she was lying. She stretched her legs as much as the aching between them would allow, acquainting herself with the soft bed. Her feet and legs were naked, but she had been dressed in a white nightgown. Her hands moved restlessly over her body and she Wondered why she felt so strange. Then she realized that her stomach was flat.

It all came back to her then in a wave of terrible memories. The fear, the pain, the horror of seeing the dead infant lying blue and cold between her legs. Tears pooled in her eyes.

"There, there, you ain't gonna start that cryin' again, are you? You been cryin' off and on in your sleep for hours."

The fingers that whisked the tears from her cheek were large, work-rough, and red in the soft glow of the lamp, but they felt good on her face. So did the voice that fell, full of gentle concern, on her ears. "Here, you ready for some of this broth? Made it from one of the rabbits the boys got this mornin' before they found you." The woman foisted a spoonful on the girl, who swallowed the rich liquid to keep from choking and discovered that it tasted good. She was hungry.

"Where am I?" she asked between swallows of the soup.

"In our wagon. Name's Ma Langston. Them was my boys that found you. You recollect any of that? You scared them half to death." She chuckled. "Luke's been tellin' the story all up and down the train. Did I mention we're with a wagon train of folks headin' to Texas?"

That was too much information to sort through at one time, so the girl concentrated on swallowing the broth. It was filling her stomach up warmly, enhancing the feeling of comfort and security. For weeks she had been fleeing, so fearful of pursuit that, except for a brief few days, she hadn't taken shelter, but had slept out in the open, eating what summer harvests she could gather in the woods.

The rawboned face that looked down at her was both stern and kind. Few would lose an argument to it, but few would know unkindness from it either. Sparse, mousy grayed brown hair was pulled back into a scraggly bun on the nape of her neck. She was a large woman with an enormous bosom that sagged to her thick waist. She was dressed in clean but faded calico. Her skin was etched with a tracery of fine lines, but, conversely, her cheeks were girlishly rosy. It was as though some benevolent god had viewed his handiwork, found it too harsh, and painted on those pink cheeks to soften the rough edges.

"Had enough?" The girl nodded. The woman set aside the tin bowl of broth. "I'd like to know your name," she said, her voice softening perceptibly, as though she sensed the forthcoming topic might not be welcomed.

"Lydia."

Jagged eyebrows arched in silent query. "That's right pretty all by itself, but don't it have nothin' to go with it? Who are your people?"

Lydia turned her head away. She envisioned her mother's face as she first remembered her from earliest childhood; beautiful and young, not the pale, vacuous face of a woman dying of despair. "Only Lydia," she said quietly. "I have no family."