Sunset Embrace(9)

By: Sandra Brown

There was a moment of confusion as three strangers met face-to-face. The gray-haired man stared in wonder at the girl before him. The thin woman beside him gasped in surprise. Lydia dropped her eyes to avoid their startled stares.

"This here's Mr. Grayson, our wagonmaster," Ma said for Lydias benefit.

Lydia kept her head bowed to stare at her dirty bare feet against the plank floor of the wagon and only nodded in acknowledgment of the introduction. "And that is Mrs. Leona Watkins." Ma was speaking in whispers out of respect for the man who was seated on a low stool, his dark head buried in his hands with his elbows propped on his knees.

It was the woman who spoke first. "Who in the world . . . and why is she gallivanting around virtually naked like that? Oh, this is the girl your boys found and brought in. I must say, I'm surprised you'd bring such a ... a person . . . into this wagon, especially at a time like this. This is a death vigil and—"

"Maybe not," Ma snapped, her obvious dislike for the other woman evident in her voice. "Mr. Grayson, this girl had a babe day before yesterday. She's got milk. I thought that if Mr. Colemans baby could suck—"

"Oh, my Lord," Mrs. Watkins exclaimed, distressed. From beneath her lashes, Lydia saw the woman raising a scrawny hand to a meager chest and clasping the front of her dress as though warding off an evil spirit.

Ma was undaunted by Leona Watkins's disapproval and went on addressing the wagonmaster. "The poor little babe might pull through yet if Lydia here could suckle him." The Watkins woman interrupted before Mr. Grayson could make a comment. As a heated argument ensued, Lydia took in as much of the wagon as her peripheral vision would allow. The quilts piled in the corner were of finer fabric scraps than those she had been covered with in the Langston wagon. One had satin ribbon weaving through the quilting pattern. There was a pair of dainty high-button white kid shoes standing beside a box of china dishes.

Her eyes roamed farther afield and came to rest on a pair of black boots. Spaced now widely apart, they were knee-high boots covering long calves. The boots were scuffed, but obviously of the finest quality leather. They fit a longish, well-shaped foot. The heels were about an inch high and made of wood polished black. The man wearing those boots would be tall if the length of his shinbones was any indication.

"I tell you it's not proper." Mrs. Watkins's objections had increased in volume and intensity. A clawlike hand gripped Lydia's chin and jerked her head up. She was looking into a face which had had all the flesh and life reamed out of it. It was narrow and ridged. The bridge of the skinny nose was as sharp and drastic as a knife blade. From often being pursed in stern disapproval, the lips had a network of fine lines radiating from them. The eyes matched the voice. They were censorious and malicious.

"Just look at her. She's trash. One can tell by looking. She's probably a ... a prostitute—may God forgive me for even speaking the word—who had a baby. She probably killed it herself to be rid of it. I doubt she ever knew who the father was."

Flabbergasted by what the woman had said, Lydia stared at her speechlessly before breathing a soft "No!"

"Mrs. Watkins, please," Mr. Grayson intervened diplomatically. He was a charitable man, though he was inclined to agree with the Watkins woman this time. The young woman did have a wild look about her. There was not one ounce of refinement either in the way she was dressed and groomed or in the shameless way she stared back at them through unusual amber eyes.

"That ain't so!" Ma denied. "But even if it was, Leona Watkins, who else on this train could nurse this baby? You?"

"Well, I never!"

"That's right," Ma snapped. "You prob'ly never was able to wring one drop of milk from those shriveled-up teats of—"

"Ma, please," Mr. Grayson said wearily.

Leona Watkins's eyes were flashing furiously in anger, but she kept silent, drawing herself up rigidly and pinching her nostrils together in disdain of the entire situation.

Ma ignored her. "Mr. Grayson, its your duty to preserve each life on this wagon train, and that includes that baby over there. Listen to the poor little thing. Out of twenty families, the only other woman who has milk is nursing her twins. Lydia is that babe's only hope. Now, are you going to save his life or let him starve?"