Winter Woman #2
TRAIL BLAZERS series
She survived the winter alone...
After Cordelia Channing endures the lethal winter season alone in the Rocky Mountains, she is discovered by Thomas Nash, a solitary mountain man who wants only to hunt, trap and be left alone to grieve the woman he could not save.
Cordelia aches to go east before winter but over the days and miles, Delia finds her battered spirit yearning for this self-reliant trapper, who stirs her longing and wakes her heart.
With only few, vital months to hunt before the snows fly, Nash has no time to look after a woman. He is surprised as Delia transforms his life and gives him the second chance he never expected. But with fall approaching, she must face her resolve to escape another deadly winter, and he must confront his oath not to open his heart to love once more.
“Winter Woman is a no-holds-barred story with unforgettable characters.”
~Rendezvous on WINTER WOMAN~
“…a fascinating portrait of the early days of the West and…an action-packed yet tender love story.”
-RT Book Review on Winter Woman
Excerpt - Winter Woman #2
Rocky Mountains – April 1835
The instant he saw movement, Thomas Nash reached for his Hawkins rifle. He stood knee-deep in the stream with the rifle sighted on the center of the Indian’s chest.
The man raised his open hand in greeting. Flathead, Nash thought and lowered his gun. He raised his hand as well. Damn, I hope they didn’t rob my traps.
“Howdy,” he said, and then he repeated his welcome in the man’s dialect.
The man spoke in Flathead. “You are Nash?”
“We have been looking for you.”
Nash glanced around but saw no other Indians. His attention focused on the man before him. “Why?”
“We have something that belongs with you. Come.”
Nash’s mind briefly flicked back to the six traps he dropped into the river when the Blackfoot Indians attacked him two weeks ago.
He sloshed out of the stream and headed back up the hill. Most Indians he knew traded with or stole from trappers. He never knew one to give anything away.
Nash led the way to camp.
On the log beside his wigwam sat a woman wrapped in a dirty quilt.
“What the hell?”
At his appearance, she stood. He stared at the baggy brown dress, which appeared to belong to someone larger. Her skin was sallow and she was as skinny as a wolf in February. He'd seen stray cats with more meat on them. Lordy, it hurt just to look at her.
“We found this white woman. You are the only white man here. We brought her to you.”
Nash shot a glance at the man, then pinned his gaze on the waif before him. “To me! I don’t want her.”
“Do all white women have this yellow hair?”
He glanced at her pale blonde locks. “Damn few--rare as ermine pelts.”
“This woman has no man. She has no horse. Yet she survived the winter, alone.”
“Yes. Still this one survived. We do not know how. She has great powers, so she will bring you luck.”
“Women don’t bring luck. I can’t take her.”
“Hunts Buffalo and I think she belongs with her people. Such a special woman deserves to go home. We would take her, only we are going to war with the Blackfoot now. Perhaps later.”
“Well what am I supposed to do with her?”
“Feed her. She is very hungry.”
The trapper turned his hard gaze upon her. “Where’s your people?”
Cordelia Channing's jaw dropped open. English. How long had it been since she’d heard English? John’s voice rose in her mind. Don’t fret Cordelia. I’ll bag an elk and be back by nightfall. I just don’t fancy going up the pass without a full larder. Snows come early in the mountains. And oh, how they had come. The whole world turned gray and she was buried alive in a cold white blanket.
“What’s wrong? You addled?” His voice snapped her back to attention. “What’re doing up here alone?” He scowled, looking strong as a buffalo and just as dangerous.
“Our wagon train was headed west. My husband meant to minister to the savages.”
“Where’s he at?”
A vivid image of the last time she’d seen John flashed in her mind. Would the memory never leave her? Tears burned the back of her throat and brimmed in her eyes. Her lip trembled as she kept the cries buried deep in her throat. She shook her head.
“Gone left or gone dead?”
She stared at his scowling face a moment in shock.
“I found his remains last October.”
Nash leaned forward. “Not Indians, or they’d have you, too.” He scratched his chin and regarded her. “Grizzly?”
Fifteen days after his disappearance she found John’s body. Scavengers had eaten at his corpse. She shuttered. “I don’t know.”
“I’m real sorry for your loss,” said the trapper, his frown unwavering.
Her voice sounded brittle as autumn leaves blown across bedrock. “What will happen to me now?”
“You’ll stay with me.”
“Will you take me East?”
He shook his head. “Not until fall.”
Her eyes flew to her rescuers. “Will they?”
“They’re going to war with the Blackfoot. You can’t go.”
The Indian she knew as Hawk Feathers squatted before her and patted her cheek. His sad eyes spoke to her. She smiled.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Gordeela,” he said, and lifted a hand in farewell. The other man nodded his goodbye. She watched them grip the horses’ manes and leap astride. In a moment they were gone, melted into the evergreens. How differently she felt seeing them go. Five days earlier, when they'd appeared in her meadow, hope and horror mingled. They were the first human beings she'd seen in seven months. Her food was nearly gone. Yet, she feared capture. In the end, she recognized them as her last chance. Without immediate help, she'd die before her roofless hut and mired wagon, so she'd crossed the meadow to meet her fate. And they'd rescued her.
The trapper pushed his wide-brimmed leather hat back on his head. She studied his eyes. They were clear blue, like a glass medicine bottle. The small lines near the corners were the only part of his face not tanned. A close-trimmed beard covered his square jaw. She guessed he was not yet thirty. His muscular body was clad entirely in soft brown buckskin. Both shirt and britches were trimmed in a long fringe. About his shoulders a powder horn and shoulder bag crisscrossed. A leather belt cinched his narrow waist and held a variety of objects including a long knife and small pouches. My word, he is the tallest man I’ve ever seen.
“How’d ya know them was two was Flathead?” he asked.
Cordelia puzzled a moment, lifting a finger to her chin. “Flat heads?”
“Good Lord Almighty–-you didn't know if they was Flathead or Blackfoot?”
She shook her head and watched his face redden.
“Don’t you know that Blackfoot hate whites and would have as likely scalped ya as helped ya?”
She lowered her head. “No one else came. You have only to look at me to know I would not have lasted long alone. I feel this deep within myself and so you see, it did not matter if they planned to kill. I have made my peace with God.”
He dragged the hat from his head and choked it in both hands. “You are either the bravest or the stupidest woman I ever met. There're worse things than dying, ya know.”
She gave him a hard stare as an image of her husband’s body, mauled by beasts flashed in her mind. She remembered the snows that covered the canvas roof of her rude cabin and stovepipe, leaving her in darkness. She knew about fates worse than death.
He scratched his beard in silence, waiting, then turned away. As he arranged wood for a fire, she studied him. His mink-colored hair hung down to his shoulder blades. She tried to see his face. Between the beard and shaggy mane, she could distinguish very little.
What kind of a man was this?
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Channing. Mrs. Cordelia Channing.”
She stood and extended her hand. He stared at it for a moment as if he expected her to perform some magic trick, then grasped it. She watched her hand disappear in his. The heat from his body radiated up her arm and she thought of John. Her husband’s hands were fine and gentle, not rough like this trapper’s. She released her grip and he did the same.
“No mister. Just Nash.”
“I see. Well Nash, what will happen now?” She stood still before him, tugging repeatedly at the frayed sleeve of her dress.
“Those fellas think you got no kin. You got people back East?”
She felt as if a hand squeezed her windpipe. The tears welled up. John’s image swam before her. They'd married prior to their departure to minister to the savages. A good match he'd said, he an orphan and she an only child. No one at home to miss them. Hot droplets of pain washed her cheeks.
“Damn. Now stop that.” Nash backed away as if her tears were contagious.
“I am sorry,” she said. “The Indians were correct. I have no kin.”
He stood several paces away with his arms folded before him like a shield. He rocked slightly as his fingers scratched his beard. He kept his distance, like a lone wolf at the edge of a camp, until she cried herself out.
Her husband had been the funniest, warmest man in the world. She glanced at the trapper. Nash--the sound of teeth grinding together. The name suited him.
Why did the only white woman in a thousand miles end up in his camp? He hadn’t seen a white woman for three years. And he hadn’t seen one cry since Elizabeth. He splashed the running water onto his face with one hand, and then sank down beside the stream to think. Elizabeth hadn’t cried in the street when the carriage ran her down, gashing her thigh. No, tears came later in the hospital when she realized they’d taken her leg.
He pounded his fist down in the gurgling water. Droplets flew in all directions.
Cordelia Channing had made him remember. Damn her for coming to the mountains.
He glanced up at the cedars swaying in the wind. There was no one to help him. Here, a man did it alone or did without. He straightened as a rustling sound intruded, the sound of long skirts brushing tall grass.
“Mr. Nash?” Her voice was soft, like a kiss.
He stood and thumped his hat against his knee in frustration. He couldn’t look in those sad brown eyes again. They were the same color as fine whiskey and he could get drunk just looking at them.
He faced her and was instantly sorry. “What?”
Her smile was sweet like April rain. “I’d like to apologize for my hysterics.”
He scooped up his gun. “It’s understandable.”
She stood a few feet away, waiting. He rubbed his nose. “Now what?”
“I cannot imagine your shock at my arrival. I do not wish to be a nuisance but--”
“Lady, mosquitoes are a nuisance. You’re a full-blown catastrophe.”
He stepped closer and watched her straighten. Her head reached only to his shoulder. Still, straight as a stick, not a curve in sight, she stood her ground.
“How old are you?” he asked.
His gaze met hers. Liquid eyes studied him. A squeezing ache grabbed hold of his gut.
She cleared her throat. “As I was saying, I realize my presence is an intrusion. I do assure you that I will be glad to part company, if you will just escort me to the nearest trading post or fort.”
He snorted and shook his head.
He leaned forward. A wisp of hair had slipped from her braid. The color reminded him of cornsilk. His fingers grasped the lock, sliding along the downy surface. Then he tucked the hair behind her ear and stepped back. She blinked and said nothing.
“Nearest fort is five hundred miles.”
“We could make it before fall,” she said.
“Delia, what do you think I’m doing here? I’m a trapper. I can’t spend two months of the season dragging you back to the Missouri.” She straightened her shoulders and glanced toward the horses. “Get that thought out of your head. You might have cheated the mountains once, never twice. You’ll stay with me until fall.”
She blinked her whiskey eyes and his gaze drifted back to her golden hair sitting upon the body of a boy.
“When the season is done, I’ll take you to the Rendezvous.”
“The Rendezvous. All the trappers will be at the gathering to sell their furs and get drunk. You’ll probably be the only white woman there. That gives you power. I’d imagine you’ll have no trouble finding a way back East, even if you do look like a boy.”
She stared down at herself, her expression a mixture of horror and embarrassment. The tops of her ears turned pink. The color spread across her cheeks and down her thin neck.
“Stop calling me that. My name is Cordelia, you wretched man!” With that she whirled about and dashed up the hill toward his camp.
Wretched? Was that her idea of name-calling?
He checked his traplines, recovering four beavers, and decided he’d been too hard on her. He should have explained the situation better, gone slow. She’d lost her man and had no family. He was all she had.
“Well, I’m not a nursemaid.” For the first time since Elizabeth died, he was afraid. Four years last January, he realized. Could it be so long? Now another woman depended on him.
He glanced skyward and noticed the clouds in the west turning pink. Soon it would be dark.
He stopped before entering his camp to look at her. That dress was pure impractical. The tattered hem dragged on the ground while she tended the fire. He’d seen better-looking feed sacks. She’ll need buckskin. Tomorrow he’d look for deer.
He hadn’t noticed before that her chin pointed and her nose turned up at the end. The squeezing sensation returned to his gut. This time it traveled all the way to his groin. The firelight gilded her hair.
He thumped the beaver against his leg, so the clatter of the trap chains would get her attention. Her head swiveled toward the sound as he expected. He strode into camp and lay his catch on the grass.
“Too early for a fire,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sky’s still light. This is Blackfoot country. That smoke could draw them from miles.”
“I’m sorry. I was cold.”
“’Cause there’s no meat on you. Next time stomp around. That’ll warm you.” There were other ways, too. He growled at the thought. She stared at him with huge eyes and he felt as trapped as a leg-locked beaver. He inhaled deeply to catch her scent. He met her cautious gaze with a smile, which felt rusty and unnatural. “You hungry?”
He formed coals into a pile at the fire’s edge. Then he cut off all four beaver’s tails and skewered them on a green stick and set them to roast.
Her lips pinched together. “Is that what we are eating?”
“I’m fresh out of fat cow.”
Her face blanched. “I’ve had enough beef for a lifetime.”
He stared at her a moment. “You don’t like beef or beaver? No wonder you’re as thin as a pike.”
The tails simmered. Blood and fat hissed on the coals.
“Where were you bound?” he asked.
“My husband was a man of the church. He and five other ministers were traveling to Oregon to bring the word of God to the savages.”
“Five families in wagons?”
“The men were all single, except for my John.”
“Where are they at now?”
“Our wheel broke. We could already see snow on the mountains. A decision was made--”
“To leave you behind.”
“To blaze a trail. We were to follow after our wheel was repaired.”
“There is no trail through them mountains, least wise none fit for wagons. Who’s your captain?”
“Reverend Harcort led us.”
“He been across them mountains?”
“No, but he had a vision. He said we were to establish an outpost and teach the heathens of the coming of our Lord.”
“Then he still ain’t.”
“He still ain’t been over them mountains. He’s dead.”
“You have no faith.”
“Yes, I do. I believe in my Hawkins rifle and the power of them mountains. I got no time for idiots.”
He drew the tails off the coals and set them on the stones to cool.
“I didn’t ask to come here,” she said.
“Well, I didn’t invite you, neither.”
He slit the tails down the middle, flaying them into two pieces and handed her half. She held it in two hands.
“Well, go on,” he said.
But she didn’t do as he said. She put the tail back on a flat rock and clasped her hands. Then she lowered her head and said grace. He groaned.
“Amen,” she said. “Do you have a knife and fork?”
“I left it in my pack with the good china.”
She stood and walked silently to her blanket pack and rummaged a moment. She returned with two tin plates and silverware. She offered him a plate. He shook his head and took a huge bite from the tail. When the hot juice ran down his beard, she looked away.
Despite her fancy manners, the woman polished off two and a half tails and was eyeing his other half. The Flatheads weren’t lying. She was hungry.
“Go on,” he said.
“Oh, thank you. This really is delicious.”
“You’re welcome, Delia.”
She gazed at him a moment. “What is your Christian name?”
“Perhaps, I could call you by that and you could call me Cordelia.”
He shook his head. “Delia.”
She glanced away.
“Did you have enough to eat?”
“More than my share, I fear.”
“You’ve got some catching up to do.”
He kicked dirt on the fire and listened to the hiss. She pulled the shabby quilt tightly about her bony shoulders and shivered.
He turned from her shuddering frame and added more wood to the fire. Under cover of darkness, the rising smoke posed no threat. Then he drew back the leather hide that covered his wigwam.
“Won’t the Blackfoot see the flames?” she asked.
“I’m up against a cliff here in a little holler. They’d have to be right on top of us to see the fire.”
“My Indians found you,” she pointed out.
“That was different. They’d passed by a while back and knew where to look.”
“Oh, I see.”
This next part would be tricky. He’d be damned if he’d sleep outside. When did you last lain beside Elizabeth? He wouldn't think about it. His blood pounded in his ears. His whole body stung. Damn Cordelia for this.
“Women belong at home,” he said. “What kind of man drags his woman into such a wilderness?”
“My husband is none of your affair, Mr. Nash.”
“Let’s go to bed,” he said.
She looked wide-awake now.
“You shall not touch me, Mr. Nash. I am in mourning.”
“Didn’t intend to.”
He crawled into the wigwam with his rifle and threw back the buffalo robes. Then he put his butchering knife and pistol beside his head and thrust his legs between the furs.
“You wear your boots to bed?” She sounded shocked. A smile crossed his face. She really was green.
He pointed to the rock before him. “Hell yes! Once I shot a bear that sat on that very ledge. Grizzly was after an elk I took. But he weren’t particular. He figured I’d do. Here, a man has got to be ready, always.”
She peered over her shoulder into the darkness, then crawled quickly into the wigwam and scooted beneath the furs coming to rest beside him. He chuckled.
“And they ain’t boots,” he said. “These here are moccasins.”
The robe was now up to her nose and her words were muffled.
“Night, Delia,” he said.
“Good night, Mr. Nash.”
The buffalo robe sagged, forming a kind of divider between them. But he could smell her now. the fragrance of sweet grass, like the hayfield in early summer, surrounded her. He fought the urge to drag her little body to his. He didn’t want to bother her; he just craved her scent.
Excerpt WINTER WOMAN ©2018 – Jenna Kernan