Emma turned to take in the view of the farm. Though the Kentucky sunlight had vanished, adding a somber pall to their departure, these people and this farm would always shine warmly in her memory. She would recollect the images of her brief stay here with the deep black furrows ready for planting and the safe, cozy room with the softly swaying curtains.
“If I were ever to have a home and family, I truly wish it to be just as this one,” Emma said with a sigh.
Herc looked back. “Right you are, except you can leave off the knife-wielding maniac running amok in the forest part.”
“Indeed,” she said as they filed into the woods. A small cluster of ivy-covered dogwoods enveloped them as they entered. Emma felt another small but potent chapter closing in her life.
Emma had lived like the Forrests once, before her father died, and when she lost that, she never had the hope to dream such an enchanted life could be hers again. True, it was hard work, but it was not as hard a life as being under Theo’s thumb.
Leaving behind the smell of freshly tilled soil, spying squirrels running through the trees and gazing at the laundry waving lazily on the line, she knew she wanted that life and realized she herself had to build it. She no longer would rely on others, on grown-ups, as it were, for she must be the one it fell on to come to fruition. She would make this life with the right person.
She looked behind her to Silas, bringing up the trail. He kept an eye on each shadow, ears open for every snap of branch. She felt safe with these two dirty, trail-worn men. She never imagined herself trusting any other man after her father died and Theo unleashed his sickening desires.
At the start of her journey, she was sure all men had such darkness inside—that every set of male eyes that looked upon her was imagining the same atrocities her uncle had actually performed. Yet, here, with these two fine men, leaving another like them behind in Edgar Forrest, she was learning not all men were black-hearted devils.
Though she was still feeling hotly toward Silas, there was an undeniable draw to him in the short while they had traveled together. Not the same draw as she did toward Hercules, though they were both protectors and mentors of road life.
Silas spoke to a deeper, unknown part of her.
She remembered Silas’ softness toward her once they began the journey, the care and joy he took in cooking for her. The pride in such a silly thing as picking her out a hat. She thought back to the precipice he teetered upon when he awaited her approval. “It’s a Stetson,” he had proclaimed, hoping the austerity and renown of the brand might win her over.
Then there was the fact he had saved her life. She tried not to fall under some savior’s spell, but the raw emotion he had displayed at nearly losing her to drowning spoke loudly about his quiet, hidden depth. At first, she tried to allot his reaction to the memory of losing his sister so many years ago in the same fashion, but some selfish hope inside her made her want to believe he really cared about her so much—that anybody cared for her so much.
He was cool and distant when he learned of her pregnancy. Her shining knight had dimmed to just a man and men are sometimes petty and shallow in nature.
Yet a hope kindled in the leaving of the Forrest’s home. She wanted such a life and she saw how to build it. She had seen a spark in Silas, a kindness and passion that, though whipped about in the recent winds, may yet be fanned into a fine conflagration.
There was a lot of earth between Hickman, Kentucky, and Houston, and Emma decided right there and then she would stoke the fire and see how it burned. She had plenty of time to find out what kind of man Silas really was, but in the meantime, she was still not done having her feelings hurt.
She wondered, as she rocked lazily in the saddle, why he had been so cold to her. Perhaps it truly was the nature of him to judge her so superficially. Perhaps he had not known the nature of her pregnancy and who the father was. Or perhaps he thought she was without virtue and therefore no longer worth his attention.
She spied another look. His cool, blue eyes were kind despite the danger they held in their depths. He had kept his mustache trimmed and had shaved his chin and jawline since their barbering—a concession to his previous wild, unkempt style of tangled beard. His tawny mustache blended with his tanned face like the golden mane of a lion. Intent on his sentry, his lips rested in a soft pout.
Emma watched his broad shoulders rise and dip alternately, followed his strong arms down to his hands. The back of his hand rested lightly on the pommel, the reins loosely cupped in his palm. The ball of his other hand lay on the handle of his pistol, long fingers curled but not tensed.
She had already witnessed him use the weapon in her defense, and though she loathed violence, she respected his judicious use of it. He only drew his weapon when necessary and only fired when prudent. In this, she knew he was not a violent man—he only wielded it as a tool, for he was not a killer but a man who would kill to protect his people.
She could not imagine Silas raising his hand to anyone out of anger or firing his weapon at anyone out of rage.
Then again, she would have thought the same thing of her uncle when she had first known him. But her Uncle Theo was a million miles from being the man Silas was.
Silas glanced up at Emma, but did not realize she was staring at him. Cleary intent on his high guard, he merely swept his dutiful gaze past her.
This tweaked her pride, but she likened it to wanting a campfire to warm only herself. The fire had many purposes. It warmed, yes, but it warmed everyone equally as it also cooked and held off beasts in the night.
Still, she couldn’t deny that his flame sparked her tinder heart.
Emma turned her gaze forward as a pair of rabbits burst from the shrubbery and darted out across the path to dive away seconds later. Looking up, she saw Hercules watching her with a crooked smile and knowing countenance.
Petulantly, Emma snipped, “What is with the cat and canary smile?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said as he craned his neck to look back at Silas and then at her with a wink. “Just taking in the scenery, same as you are.”
He had a jolly swaying to his rhythm as he forged ahead of them.
Emma flushed at having been caught ogling Silas, but hoped Herc would keep it to himself.
An oak leaf, a withered anomaly in the full, verdant spring, drifted down, spun before her face and settled on her stomach. Immediately, she felt a fool for having such impetuous ramblings of the mind. She picked the leaf off, and flung it to the side. She lay her hand gently on her belly. Though she was not far along enough in her pregnancy as to feel a large bump or some such, she did hold her hand there as she contemplated her condition.
She knew it was foolish to entertain any ideas between her and any man when she carried the inbred bastard child of her uncle. All would look upon her with scorn and pity, as she found herself outside the circle of proper society. She felt guilt at herself for wishing the child inside gone. It was an affront to God and the world, but it was still a child, guilty of nothing. Like her, this baby inside her was innocent of any sin or crime except that of being in the same world as Theo Colson. Besides blood and time, they shared his abuse.
She had heard of an operation that would remove the child. Once the details were learned and the risks evaluated, the notion was entertained no further. She could not bring herself to do it—even if it was an abomination and would cast her down further in the eyes of others. Though half the child was Theo, the other half was her.
Another reason she ran was, away from St. Louis, she could begin a life with the child where no one had any knowledge of their true origins. If it were to be seen through, she reasoned Silas would likely not want be a part of it. How could he ever forget the dark cloud that would surely hang over them?
She had not even given him the chance to get close to her and yet she was already judging his character to be just shy of accepting her and the child for what they were.
Here she had just done what Silas had, hadn’t she? She judged him as he judged her.
Instead of dwelling on this, she played with fabrications of her past. She constructed stories strangers might accept. Her husband had been killed while serving with the cavalry out west, or some gruesome mining disaster in Arizona.
She saw herself starting over in Prescott, with her grandfather. In the vision, she walked down the main street of the fine western town, baby swaddled in her arms. She would nod to the townspeople who had taken her in with open hearts. Her imagination was let loose. They would hail her and come to see the child of the poor widow. In this waking dream, she looks down and listens to the cooing of her child. She draws back the blankets to reveal a purple-skinned demon with jagged teeth and coal black eyes. She shrieks as she drops the inbred monster right there on Main Street.
The frightening daydream brought forth the ultimate fear: that, in truth, the child she bore may be a malformed abomination. She retched and felt as if she must leap from her horse and run—just run, until the earth rose up and wrapped her in its dark embrace. She did not know if she could carry on with this child. She did not know if she could carry on without it. The bile rose and she vomited off to the side of her horse. She wished the child might come up with it, but she knew it did not work that way.
“You need we should stop?” Silas asked worriedly, twisting in his saddle to search her face. “Herc, perhaps she is not yet recovered enough for a trip.”
Herc stopped in the lead. “I suppose she would tell us if that were the case.”
“No,” Emma said, wiping her mouth and intentionally avoiding Silas’ eyes. “I should be fine. I am merely a little nervous about this maniac running around. Let’s get out of here.”