Tongue Point, Oregon Territory
Geoff heard the click of a rifle being cocked in the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm. “Stand up—slowly, now—and keep your hands where I can see ’em.”
He obeyed without question. Several years of service in Her Majesty’s Army had taught him not to argue with people pointing weapons at him. Not at the moment, at least. Once he got his hands on the pistol at his belt, this would be a different conversation.
Her voice came again. “Turn around. Let’s have a look at you.”
Slowly, hands raised, he followed her orders. The sunlight fell through a gap in the trees overhead, almost blinding him. He blinked. As his eyes adjusted to the light, a young, dark-haired woman stepped onto the path. She was a tiny thing, the top of her head almost level with his shoulder. But the eyes that studied him were as steady as the rifle in her hands. The one that she was pointing straight at him.
He cleared his throat. “Good afternoon, madam.” Civility never hurt at a time like this.
“Are you calling me a madam?” She tilted her head as though trying to determine if the word was intended as an insult. A loosely bound braid of dark hair shifted to fall over one shoulder of the overlarge man’s coat she was wearing. Her eyes were a truly beautiful gray, the color of woodsmoke before it dissipates in a breeze.
“I meant no offense, ma’am.” He nodded toward the opened pack at his feet. “I was not going to steal anything.”
This wasn’t the first time he’d been on the wrong side of a rifle. He could usually talk his way out of a bad situation. All the same, his heart raced and a tiny thread of sweat trickled down his back. The autumn day was not unusually warm, but he welcomed the breeze that wafted up the hill from the Columbia River.
“So you say.” The woman raised the rifle a bit higher. “If you weren’t bent on thieving, why were you going through my pack?”
“I was looking for some identification, so I could return the pack to its proper owner.” I was looking to see if it had any information that I could use.
Her eyes narrowed, as if what he was thinking showed on his face. He shifted his gaze to focus on her lips, avoiding direct eye contact. “My friend and I are private travelers on a tour of the Oregon Territory. Seeing the sights. Scientific exploration of the New World. Sketching scenic vistas. That sort of thing. While my friend was securing the boat at the landing, I decided to come up the hill to, er, see if I could get a view of the surrounding countryside. The leaves changing colors and all that. Charming, don’t you know.”
As he spoke, he relaxed his features into what he hoped she would take to be an expression of amiable fatuousness. “I was merely passing by when I saw the pack on the side of the road.”
If he were being honest—which he mostly wasn’t, considering all the lies he had just told her—“road” wasn’t how he would have described a barely navigable trail through the woods. Still, this looked like one of those times when it would be as well to be diplomatic. The young woman might take exception to any criticism of the area. A local, by the look of her. Surely no female brought up in civilization would ever dress in an ill-fitting man’s shirt and trousers, topped by an oversized coat. She wore the odd clothes with all the self-possession of Queen Victoria herself, though this girl could not have been much above twenty.
She looked as if she had forgotten how to smile. The corners of her lovely mouth seemed fixed in a permanent curve downward, but the charming sprinkle of freckles across her nose made her seem less forbidding, more approachable. Or as approachable as anyone could be while pointing a rifle.
When I’m reading, I tend to look for stories that start off with a bang. So that’s how I started this story.
Is it too abrupt? I know some people like stories that develop gradually over the course of the novel.