A lonely Mountie, missing and presumed dead for two years, returns home to search for his wife.
© Kate Bridges. All rights reserved.
Calgary, December 15, 1893
He had to find her.
In the rising wind and squalling snow, Logan Sutcliffe, an officer and veterinary surgeon of the North-West Mounted Police, unstrapped the snowshoes from his weary feet. He slung them over the heavy fur pelts of his overcoat, then peered down the early evening streets of Calgary, wondering where to begin.
He moaned with fear and anticipation, the kind a man felt when he’d been gone for two suffering years. Logan wasn’t even sure Melodie still lived in this town.
Gripping his leather sack, he trudged along the boardwalk of Macleod Trail and headed in the direction of Fort Calgary. If it were daytime and clearer and he looked above his shoulder to the west, he’d see the jagged snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains that marked the prairies’ end.
He nodded to passersby, none of whom he recognized.
“Howdy.” His warm breath formed a cloud in the icy air, adding more crystals to the icicles in his mustache and beard. Street lighting from the oil lamps flickered off his shoveled path and the sparkling snowbanks piled high along the road.
Would Melodie recognize him? He looked so different now. He was bundled up in animal skins, with dark blond hair trailing down his shoulders and a long, unkempt beard he hadn’t had the opportunity, nor desire, to shave. And there was his facial injury.
He focused ahead. The town had grown. The dozen stores he remembered had multiplied to three dozen. Some had leaded tinsel streaming down their square-paned windows, some had red bows tied to their pine doors. One had a painted wooden picture of Saint Nicholas. In the horse-plowed street, a crowd of youngsters and their folks surrounded one enterprising fellow who’d strapped jingle bells to his donkey and was giving rides. Disregarding the twenty-below temperature, children took turns as mothers and fathers chuckled. It brought a smile to Logan’s lips. He hadn’t seen a child in two years.
When he looked up again, he saw her store.
The sight knocked the breath out of him. Halting in his tracks, he leaned against the corner post to steady his trembling hand. It had to be hers. The sign above it read: Melodie’s Bath and Barber House.
So she hadn’t left. And she’d finally opened her shop.
Did she live her life alone? Had she found another man? What man wouldn’t cross a continent to be with her?
Her shop was decorated with strings of dried berries and holly branches, the most colorful storefront on the block. It was just like her to do it up special. She’d always loved everything about Christmas.
Well…his heavy feet wouldn’t move. How long had Melodie and the others searched for him?
How long had it taken before they’d presumed him dead?
What if she no longer loved him? What if she couldn’t tolerate the way his looks had changed, or simply told him to go away?
With a wave of resolution, he stepped off the curb into the squeaky white snow, heading for her door. To feel her warm embrace again had driven him this far. He’d take her reaction however it came.
The bell above the door jingled as he entered. A wet newsletter clung to the door window, but its headline was clear: Christmas Social At Fort Calgary, Saturday December 15. That was tonight at eight, in roughly two and a half hours.
“Evenin’.” The dark-haired young woman at the counter glanced up at Logan while she took change from another man who was leaving.
With heart leaping, Logan peered over her shoulder into a room lit by lanterns and candles. Four men shuffled in their seats, two with towels wrapped around their faces, heating up for shaving. No Melodie.
Logan swiveled to the stone fireplace. He gazed at the pine Christmas tree decorated with fruits and nuts. The fragrance of pine needles and dried fruit was comforting. A speckled sheepdog lay curled on a mat by the burning fire, one Logan didn’t recognize. He let the heat warm his frigid gloved fingers, waiting until the other man left before Logan spoke to the young woman behind the counter.
“Is Melodie here?” His voice was still raspy from his injuries.
“You’re one of her customers, are you? I’ll get you set up in the back with your bath, then you can take one of the far seats and she’ll get to your cut and shave after the others. Melodie’s in the back room gettin’ fresh towels.”
He’d found her! His legs almost buckled beneath him.
“Have you been on the road for long?”
Forever. “Four weeks.” Logan stared at the woman’s black braided hair and rosy cheeks. She seemed familiar but he couldn’t place her.
“What’s your name?”
“Smith,” he mumbled, not wanting to tip his hand before he got a chance to explain to Melodie. It wasn’t true, but he’d gone by that name for most of the months he’d been gone, named by the old man who’d found him facedown in the snow with a bullet wound to his face, with no remembrance of who or what he was.
“I’ll go tell Melodie you’re here.”
“And I’ll ask Boris to haul another tubful of hot water.”
She obviously thought Logan was a customer. He didn’t see the need to tell her otherwise.
She disappeared through the hallway of the large log building as a baby cried. Baffled by the sudden wail, Logan peered behind the counter. In a wooden cradle, bundled in a blue wool blanket with a head of black hair, the sweet infant looked to be around two months old. Whose child was he?
Please, not Melodie’s. Logan did a frantic calculation. Two months plus nine for carrying him equaled eleven months. Logan had been gone for twenty-four.
Before he could let the shock of that sink in, Melodie brushed by him, arms full of linen towels. His heart flew to his throat. Joy knotted with sorrow, in one trembling lump.
She smiled up at him, as beautiful as the day he’d met her.
“Good evening, Mr. Smith.” She set down her pile of huge towels on the side counter beside him and frowned at him.
His heart stopped pulsing.
Deep, coffee-brown eyes assessed him. Straight black brows framed her eyes and the tip of the pert nose he used to kiss every night was dotted with soap. Pretty pink lips turned up at him. The same lips that had first whispered “I love you” to him on a beaten-up old rocking chair, one sultry autumn evening.
She flicked a handful of her silky black hair back over her shoulder from where it had fallen. A dimple caught in her cheek as she held his gaze.
It came to him like a powerful explosion. Melodie didn’t recognize him.
His throat tightened with unspoken words.
The baby cried again.
“Timmy, what’s the matter?”
Logan swallowed past the dryness in his throat as he watched her with the infant. Every time she smiled at the baby, Logan’s heart turned over in response.
He didn’t recall her clothes. Although they were a bit worn-out, they were new to him.
She wore a light rose-colored blouse, buttoned to the top of her high collar, with a soft gray skirt swirling about her feet. Her sleeves were rolled up well past her elbows, revealing smooth creamy arms. She was plumper now, thickly padded around the middle. She used to be thin. The extra pounds filled her out in luscious places.
She was happy. He could see it in her energetic walk and the way she turned to stare lovingly at the baby.
When she gathered the infant in her arms, the ring on her left hand glistened in the firelight. The ring had a stone, so it wasn’t the one Logan had given her.
It looked like a wedding ring. He staggered back at the horrific implication.
“Momma’s going to feed you soon,” she whispered. She kissed the chubby face.
Who was Momma? Melodie or the other young woman?
Logan remembered the tender kisses Melodie used to place on his temples, the spot she liked to kiss him most. You’re the sweetest right here, she used to say.
“Will it hurt?” she asked Logan, setting down the baby. She cupped a hand to her face, indicating the scarring down Logan’s left cheek. “Can you take the heat of the warm cloth on your face, or should we skip that part?”
He tried to clear his throat of all the pain he felt at having been ripped out of her life, beyond his control and hers. Self-conscious of his injury and his left droopy eyelid, he rubbed his face with a gloved hand. “It doesn’t hurt.”
“Have you been here before?”
He shook his head, no. Not specifically in this shop. It was new. Then his eyes watered with the ache of maybe having lost her forever. He nodded, yes. He’d been with her before.
She seemed flustered by his response. “I’ve never cut your hair before though, have I?”
“Actually,” he said softly, “you have.”
She opened her moist lips as if to protest, but changed her mind. “Well then, sir…you can hang your coat by the fire and go on to the back. We’ll try to finish up with these four gentlemen by the time you’ve finished your bath. I think you’ll be my last customer of the day.”
When she gracefully walked away from him, he stared after her, exalting in the sheer simple beauty of her walk. Her hips flared from the waistband of her long dark skirt, hinting at the provocative legs beneath.
How could he tell her who he was in the most compassionate manner possible?
If he took a bath and cut, it would buy him time to regroup, to find out where he stood. He could pry information out of the hired hand in the back room—Boris, the other woman had called him.
And if Melodie were already spoken for, if the baby were hers, what would Logan do then?
While he watched her lean over a customer, Logan felt like crying out for joy. He’d found her.
And then he felt like weeping with misery.
A new shop. A new dog. Different clothes. A different ring. A small baby. Everything had changed.
But…Melodie couldn’t have remarried.
She couldn’t have remarried because Melodie Sutcliffe was still his wife.