The Runaways Book 3
Lost in the watery backwoods of an Illinois swamp, a frightened young runaway meets a lonely stranger...two wounded souls hiding from the world. Together, in a treetop sanctuary, they would learn the importance of trust, and forgiveness--and moonlight... Noah LeCroix, half-French and half-Cherokee is convinced he's the oldest living male virgin in southern Illinois and certain he's destined to be alone forever...until one fateful night when he hears a bone chilling scream from the depths of the swamp.
Olivia Bond is on the run from a terrible year as a captive in a whorehouse in New Orleans. Hopelessly lost, Olivia is unconscious by the time Noah finds her, a disgraced heroine who finds freedom in forgiveness and the love of a reclusive hero who dares to stay and give his heart when running would be easier.
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Late April, 1819
She would be nineteen tomorrow. If she lived.
In the center of a faint deer trail on a ribbon of dry land running through a dense swamp, a young woman crouched like a cornered animal. The weak, gray light from a dull, overcast sky barely penetrated the bald cypress forest as she wrapped her arms around herself and shivered, trying to catch her breath. She wore nothing to protect her from the elements but a tattered, rough, homespun dress and an ill-fitting pair of leather shoes that had worn blisters on her heels.
The primeval path was nearly obliterated by lichen and fern that grew over deep drifts of dried twigs and leaves. Here and there it was littered with the larger, rotting, fallen limbs of trees. The fecund scent of decay clung to the air, pressed down on her, stoked her fear and gave it life.
Her breath came fast and hard. She squinted through her tangled black hair, shoved it back, her fingers streaked with mud. Her hands shook. Terror born of being lost was heightened by the knowledge that night was going to fall before she found her way out of the swamp.
Not only did the encroaching darkness frighten her, but so did the deep, silent waters along both sides of the trail. Realizing she would soon be surrounded by night and water both, a strangled cry escaped her. Behind her, from somewhere deep amid the cypress trees wrapped in rust-colored bark came the sound of a splash as some unseen creature dropped into the watery ooze.
She rose, spun around and scanned the surface of the swamp. Frogs and fish, venomous copperheads and turtles big as frying pans thrived beneath the lacy emerald carpet of duckweed that floated upon the water. As she knelt there, wondering whether she should continue on in the same direction or turn back, she watched a small knot of fur skim over the surface of the water toward her.
A soaking wet muskrat lost its grace as soon as it made land and lumbered up the bank in her direction. Almost amused and yet wary, the girl scrambled back a few inches. The creature froze and stared back with dark, beady eyes before it turned tail, hit the water and disappeared.
Forcing herself to her feet, the girl kept her eyes trained on the narrow footpath, gingerly stepping through piles of damp, decayed leaves. Again she paused, lifted her head, listened for the sound of a human voice, the pounding footsteps which meant someone was in pursuit of her along the trail.
When all she heard was the distant knock of a woodpecker, she let go a sigh of relief. Determined to keep moving, she trudged on, ever vigilant, hoping that the edge of the swamp lay just ahead.
Suddenly, the sharp, shrill scream of a bobcat set her heart pounding. With a fist pressed against her lips, she squeezed her eyes closed and froze, afraid to move, afraid to even breathe. The cat screamed again, and the cry echoed across the haunting silence of the swamp until it seemed to stir the very air around her.
She glanced up at dishwater gray patches of weak afternoon light nearly obliterated by the cypress trees that grew so close together in some places that not even a small child could pass between them. The thought that a wild cat might be looming somewhere above her in the tangled limbs, crouched and ready to pounce, sent her running down the narrow, winding trail.
She had not gone a hundred steps when the toe of her shoe caught beneath an exposed tree root. Thrown forward, she began to fall and cried out.
As the forest floor rushed up to meet her, she put out her hands to break her fall. A shock of pain shot through her wrist an instant before her head hit a log.
And then her world went black.
Heron Pond, Illinois
Noah LeCroix walked to the edge of the wide, wooden porch surrounding the one-room cabin he had built high in the sheltering arms of an ancient bald cypress tree and looked out over the swamp. Twilight gathered, thickening the shadows that shrouded the trees. He loved the magic of darkness, watching the stars appear in the sky, almost as much as he loved the swamp.
The swamp pulsed with life all night long. The darkness, coupled with the still, watery landscape, settled a protective blanket of solitude over him. In the dense, liquid world beneath him and the forest around his home all manner of life coexisted in a delicate balance. He likened the swamp's dance of life and death to the way good and evil existed together in the world of men beyond its boundaries.
This shadowy place was his universe, his sanctuary. He savored its solitude, was used to it after having grown up in almost complete isolation with his mother, a reclusive woman of the Illinois tribe who left her people behind when she chose to settle in far-off Kentucky with his father, a French Canadian fur trapper named Gerard LeCroix.
Living alone served Noah's purpose now more than ever. He had no desire to dwell among "civilized men," especially now that white settlers were moving across the Ohio and into Illinois in droves.
Noah turned away from the smooth log railing that bordered the wide, covered porch cantilevered out over the swamp. He was about to step into the cabin where a single oil lamp cast its circle of light when he heard a bobcat scream. He would not have given the sound a second thought if not for the fact that a few seconds later the sound was followed by a high-pitched shriek, one that sounded human enough to stop him in his tracks. He paused on the threshold and listened intently. A chill ran down his spine.
It had been so long since he had heard the sound of another human voice that he could not really be certain, but he thought he had just heard a woman's cry.
Noah shook off the ridiculous, unsettling notion and walked into the cabin. The walls were covered with the tanned hides of mink, bobcat, otter, beaver, fox, white-tailed deer and even bear. His few other possessions, a bone-handled hunting knife with a distinctive wolf's head carved on it, various traps, some odd pieces of clothing, a few pots and a skillet, four wooden trenchers and mugs and a rifle, were all neatly stored inside. All he owned and needed in the world, save the dugout canoe secured near the base of the tree.
Sparse but comfortable, even the sight of his familiar surroundings could not help him shake the feeling that something unsettling was about to happen, that all was not right in his world.
Pulling a crock off a high shelf, Noah poured a splash of whiskey into a cup and drank it down, his concentration focused on the deepening gloaming and the sound of the swamp. An unnatural stillness lingered in the air after the puzzling scream, almost as if, like him, the wild inhabitants of Heron Pond were collectively waiting for something to happen. Unable to deny his curiosity any longer, Noah sighed in resignation and walked back to the door.
He lingered there for a moment, staring out at the growing shadows, trying to convince himself he was making something out of nothing, but when he could not shake the feeling that something was wrong, that someone was out there, he reached for the primed and loaded Hawken rifle that stood just inside the door and stepped out into the gathering dusk.
"Noah's story has been long anticipated by readers who demanded it be told . . . they will definitely not be disappointed.
Ms. Landis has done a superb job. Bravo, I loved it!" The Old Book Barn Gazette