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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January 31, 2008
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Excerpt from Outlaw Bride by Jenna Kernan
California November 1850
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 belowdecks.
Bridget's 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. She would 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 from the decking 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 sunlight broke through the green deck, glass prisms set in the deck, 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 till the hanging."
She followed him down the 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 peered 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 mountains. 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-olds 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.