Harlequin Historical #883
Out of print. Available as e-book.
Breaking him out of prison was the easy part . . .
Bridget Callaghan was willing to do anything to save her family, stranded in the Cascade Mountains. The only man who could attempt such a treacherous rescue mission was Cole Ellis, but he was behind bars - and condemned to hang!
Bridget’s boldness in breaking him out of jail was the jolt Cole needed to give his life purpose again. But with a posse at their heels and the mountain looming, she couldn’t help but wonder if putting her trust in this tough, life-hardened man wasn’t the biggest danger of all . . .
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"Kernan creates an engaging and fascinating story..."
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The jailor eyed Bridget Callahan with sterile blue eyes. “You carrying a weapon?”
“What?” she asked.
“Or anything else that would help him escape?”
“I just want to speak to the man, not hang beside him.”
The jailor nodded and led her across the deck of the prison brig, Stafford, moored on the eastern bank of the American River. Stripped of all rope and sail, the ship wallowed in the mud like a sow, left to rot along with those poor souls locked below decks.
Her nose wrinkled at the stench. Stone or wood, the housing didn’t matter. Unwashed bodies, urine and filth, smelled the same, both sides of the Atlantic.
Keep your family together, and the rest of the world can take care of itself. Her father always said as much. Bridget set her jaw. Mary and Chloe were all she had left of her family. Shewould not lose them as well.
The jailor descended the galley stairs, disappearing into the gloom. Bridget paused on deck as apprehension prickled her neck. Nothing on God’s green earth could convince her to go down those stairs. Nothing, she thought, except her family dying by inches in the freezing cold.
She shifted her attention to the long straight street leading east to the rolling hills she had crossed alone, beyond stood the jagged ridge of mountains. Low clouds hung over the peaks. She knew what that meant. The granite teeth devoured her family and the snow buried them alive.
“What’s keeping you?” called the jailor.
Perspiration erupted on her face and neck as she lowered one foot and then the next to the steep stairs. Below, small pinpoints of light broke through the green glass prisms, casting the narrow hall in eerie shadow.
“He’s got his own cell, moved him aft from the brig to the second mate’s quarters, just ‘til the hanging.”
She followed him down a narrow corridor. He halted before a sturdy wooden door with bars set in a square opening at eye level.
“Where’s me keys?” He fished in his overcoat for his ring and then fanned them to locate the right one.
She stared into the darkness beyond the bars.
“Keep back. He’s had some to drink.”
“You let your prisoners drink?”
“Started his last meal early. Asked for four bottles of whiskey and the mayor says he’s to have them, wants him to go to his maker in this sorry state.” The jailor turned to the darkness beyond the door. “Ellis, you awake?”
Bridget thought he sounded eager, but that made no sense. No one was anxious to die.
“No, you stupid bastard, you got a whole day left.”
The condemned man cursed.
“Got a visitor. Miss Callahan. She got trapped in your mountains. Her family’s still up there.”
Another curse. “Go away.”
The jailor leaned closer, letting her know without words that Ellis was not the only one drinking on board. “He don’t like to talk about it.”
She stepped forward and spoke into the gloom. “I’ve some questions.”
“Go away, damn you.”
The jailor grinned. “Ellis knows all about them mountain. Rescued some, but not all.” He raked his keys across the bars. “Right, Ellis? Couldn’t save your own kin?”
He’d lost his family to the Cascades. Her worst nightmare had happened to him. Is that why he had fallen so far?
The jailor banged on the bars with the iron ring. “But you made it, all right. Didn’t you, Ellis?”
His captive muttered something unintelligible and the jailor chuckled as he retraced his steps, pausing before the narrow stairs.
“Enjoy your visit,” he called and disappeared up the ladder.
Cole heard Meredith’s heavy step on the stairs. Was the woman gone as well?
He clutched the smooth neck of the whiskey bottle and tipped it back, longing for the burn in his throat and the fire in his belly.
He released his grip and the bottle clunked against the bunk, then the floor, rolling in a circle before coming to rest.
Her voice drifted in from the cell door. She sounded young and Irish. His wife’s people had come from the old country.
He squeezed his eyes closed tight as the guilt overcame him. His wife—dead and gone while he still lived. Never should it be so.
Why had she left him? He should have died with her that day, but then he thought he might still save their daughter. He hadn’t. The rage billowed inside him. Twenty-three-year-old’s should not die in the snow.
“Mr. Ellis, my family is still up there.”
“So’s mine,” he muttered.
What did she want from him? He was in here and she, out there. What month was it? Every damn day was the same in this miserable land, no seasons, just mild days and warm nights. Angela would have loved it here.
“Can’t tell winter from spring,” he muttered.
“What was that?” she asked.
He didn’t answer.
“Mr. Ellis, they say they can’t make a rescue until February at the earliest. The food won’t last that long. You’ve been there. You rescued fifteen people in November.”
“I left more than I saved.”
“But you saved some, Mr. Ellis. There are three more souls waiting.”
“Not for me.”
“You know how to reach them. How to bring them down.”
“Ah, is that all. Just wait until April and then walk straight up the trail. They’ll be there, unless the wolves get at them.”
He heard a small sound. Did she gaspD “They’ve only one ox and no flour. Mr. Ellis, do you understand?”
He did and his gut coiled in tight knots. He wanted to tell her to forget them, but he could not muster the words.
“Can you give me some notion as how to proceed?” asked the woman.
She made him remember. He reached for the whiskey.
“Please, Mr. Ellis.”
He paused before pulling the cork with his teeth. “If I tell you, will you go away?”
Silence. The little bit of baggage was considering his offer.
“If you answer all my questions.”
A counter offer. She was used to barter. He smiled, intrigued enough to lower the bottle.
“No man living can answer all a woman’s questions, especially a man who’s fall-down drunk. I’ll give you five, then you scat.”
She was quiet again, but finally, just when he had nearly forgotten she was there, she piped up again.
“Should I hire horses or mules?”
“Neither,” he said.
Her small face pressed to the space between the bars on his door, showing him a sharp nose centered between two large eyes.
“I’m not following you,” she said.
He hoped not, as he was traveling to the gallows. He bit back the sarcasm. He wife never approved of that side of him.
“Pack animals mire in deep snow. Get snowshoes.”
Her fingers clutched the bars. He stared at the thin, pale appendages and staggered to his feet. Since the prison ship didn’t move, he assumed the rocking was entirely internal.
He lost his tenuous hold on his equilibrium and stumbled against the door. His hand gripped hers. The heat of her skin registered first and then the sweet fruity scent of her drifted into his world like a soft breeze through an orchard. Had she been eating oranges?
She didn’t draw back at his touch and that surprised him, but not half so much as when she reached through the bars to capture his wrist. Her strong grip showed her vitality. If he did not know better, he’d think she meant to drag him through that narrow gap and force him along on her mission. He could see the determination glowing in her fertile green eyes and something else, something familiar—grief. She mourned them already.
“I didn’t think of snowshoes.”
Bridget found herself leaning in to catch his next words. She had not forgotten the jailor’s warning to keep back, but rather disregarded it. The knowledge he had was worth the risk of coming.
“And stay clear of the avalanche plane.”
Avalanche? “How shall I know it?”
Cole couldn’t keep his jaw from dropping. Had she walked right through it, unknowing?
The woman blinked at him, her brow wrinkled in concentration. She’d been up there—on his mountain. How had she escaped? What quality did she have that his wife did not?
Was it all luck? Was that what decided who lived and who died?
It was a question he’d asked himself more times than he could remember. Why had they died? Why had he lived?
“I thought canned fruit might do them the most good.” It was, in fact, what she most craved, and bread, but she could think of no way to bring that.
“No, no. Jerked meat and dried fruit.”
“But coffee and …”
“Too heavy. Melt snow for drinking and bring a buffalo robe.”
She would not have thought of that either.
Bridget needed to learn all he knew, but minutes slipped by. This time tomorrow, he’d be dead and she’d be alone again.
It was a miracle she had survived her descent. She could not rely on luck on the return. This man had been there and back—twice. He knew things, things that she must understand if she was to succeed.
She needed more than words. She needed—him. Her next idea so shocked her, that it took her breath away. She stood frozen in terror as the idea took hold. Her heart beat against her ribs with such force she needed to grit her teeth against the pain of it. Part of her wanted to turn tail and run. The coward, she thought, the side of her that always sought to save its skin. Instead, she stood silently battling for the courage to speak.
Her whispered voice rang with desperation. “Would you take me?”
His eyes narrowed as if she mocked him. His smile was sardonic. “I’ve a previous engagement.”
She felt the noose tightening around her own neck. If he died, her only chance to rescue her family died with him. She knew it without question. “If I get you out, will you promise to come?”
Cole measured the woman. She looked that desperate. He was tempted to say yes, just to be rid of her. It was an easy lie, since the woman’s chances of gaining his release were about the same as anyone reaching her family in time.
Still he hesitated. He didn’t want to struggle any longer. That’s why he stole that pretty little mare. Jabbing his finger so far into the mayor’s eye, not even he could overlook it. Too bad about the horse’s broken leg. He had never intended that. His jaw clenched. Mark it down with his other sins, he thought.
“Please, Mr. Ellis. I need you.”
He saw her face clearly now, earnest, thin and as pale as ivory. How long had it been since anyone had needed him?
Cole pulled free of the woman’s hand. The heat of her still clung to him as did the lush scent of orange peels.
“My family’s lives, Mr. Ellis, for your liberty.”
As if he wanted that. She couldn’t provide him the release he sought and neither could he. He glanced at the three full whiskey bottles. Their respite was all too brief. So he’d taken the coward’s way.
“Mr. Ellis, you are the only one who has been there.”
He just wanted her to go away. A lie would solve that and what harm would it do? They’d both have what they sought. She’d have hope and he’d have peace. Likely she’d push off to plead with some judge. What was she willing to bargain for his freedom?
The first thing that sprang to his mind made him grimace, though he could not fathom why he cared what the girl did, so long as she did it elsewhere.
Let her weep and plead for his freedom, then there might be one person in the world who would mourn his passing.
“All right,” he whispered.
He didn’t want to.
“Swear on the soul of your wife.”
He drew back.
He just wanted to lie down and rest, sleep. But she kept picking at him like a crow on a carcass.
“I’ll not go until I hear you say it.”
He could feel his wife’s disappointment in him, knew she would not approve of what he was about to do. But she had left him long ago. He gritted his teeth against the anger that glowed bright for a instant before drowning in guilt. How could he hate her for dying?
“Mr. Ellis. Your vow?”
Oh, would this woman ever go away?
“Yes, on her soul then.”
The instant he said it, the fog of whiskey lifted and he understood what he had done. A cold chill seeped into his bones.
Pray to God, she can’t do it. Please, God, don’t let her succeed.
She shouted, “Mr. Meredith!” On the second call she heard his heavy step as he descended the narrow stairs.
“What is it? Did the mongrel grab you?”
Bridget stood with her hands in tight fists. She couldn’t believe what she was thinking, couldn’t breathe past the terror of it. She risked all on the promise of a man who stunk of whiskey.
Small hope is better than none.
“I, the heat.” She lifted her hand to her brow for effect as the jailor drew closer and then she stumbled against him.
“It’s the smell what does it.”
It was nothing to reach into his coat. The difficult part was doing it so that the keys came away soundlessly. But she’d had practice, years and year of it. Some skills stuck like tar on flesh. She threaded her fingers through the individual pieces and squeezed. The jailor held her now, supporting her weight.
“I’ll get you out.”
"No,” she whispered, regaining her footing. “Some water.”
He released her, but stood near, ready to catch her. He didn’t appear to note the hand she kept behind her back.
“Water?” she whispered.
He dragged a stool from beneath the stairs. “Sit there.”
She did and he rushed away. Bridget turned to the lock, now at eye level. She could feel Ellis standing above her, just inches away as she tried one key after another.
“Don’t,” he whispered.
You’d think the man wanted to hang. She stiffened as realization dawned and she shot to her feet, staring hard into his eyes. Yes, he looked that hopeless.
“Now you listen to me, Mr. Ellis. You made a pledge.”
“You tricked me.”
“You’ll be seeing it through. After that what you do is your own damn business.”
He looked surprised—at her language, she wondered, or something else?
“I won’t lead you to that icy hell.”
“You will. You vowed on her soul.”
She slipped another key into the lock and this time the tumbler caught. The click brought them both to stillness, she on her side and he on his.