Authors: Heather Blanton
The morning sun was just sneaking over the high peaks around
Defiance as Hannah and Emilio marched for the marshal’s office.
Black Elk’s angry, dark eyes haunted her and her wrist still ached
from his brutal grip. He frightened her now that she’d really seen the loathing
he harbored for whites.
The jangle of an approaching wagon intruded on her thoughts, and a
familiar voice made her turn. “Good morning, Miss Hannah. Emilio.” Silas Madden
tipped his hat and pulled his wagon to a halt. “Can I give you a ride to the
“Good morning, Silas. My goodness, you’re in town early. I thought
Naomi said you and Sarah were working out at your place until next week.”
“We are, but I had to come into town for lumber, nails, and a few
other things. So I’m not going to the hotel, but I’m happy to drop you.”
Hannah shook her head. “We appreciate the offer, Silas, but we’re
actually going to the marshal’s.”
“All righty, then.” He tipped his hat again and slapped the reins,
putting his team back to work. Seconds later, he drove across the street and
around to the back of the mercantile.
As she and Emilio crossed the street, her thoughts went back to
Black Elk. “I should have known he was going to do something like that. I
caught him staring at me several times last night.”
“I think you should stay away from him now,” Emilio said. “If
everything he said is true, maybe he came to town to scout for women to trade.”
Hannah’s steps faltered. The idea struck her as preposterous. On
the other hand, towns had a concentration of women. “Would they do that?”
, towns have been raided before, but only when there
were many warriors. Black Elk may have come hunting to see if there were any
“He said he came here to drink.”
“Either way, One-Who-Cries is going to try to trade the girl, and
the marshal needs to know that.”
Hannah couldn’t help but think about the poor girl who had been
kidnapped and her sister, dead now because she’d fought. The story haunted her.
But for the grace of God, there go I …
She prayed the girl would make it
Matthew opened his eyes but the bolt of pain that rocketed through
his head slammed them shut again. His head felt like he’d been stepped on by an
elephant and his side throbbed with a bone-jarring beat. He was sure his mouth
had been stuffed with cotton, and his stomach was more than a little queasy.
I am getting too old for this. Scorpion stings would feel better.
Slowly, through a sludgy haze, memories came back. Cheap whiskey.
A very willing Amaryllis. He touched his side and wondered what had happened to
her doing all the work.
The fresh clean bandage reminded him of the Doc’s office, and
Hannah. The Mexican kid had helped him back to the hotel. He didn’t remember
what he’d said and if Naomi had seen them stumbling in.
He rubbed his temples, wondering if she was a lost cause. If she
caught him in too many lies, it wouldn’t matter about the ace he had up his
sleeve. Well, there was only one way to find out. Holding his breath, he forced
himself to sit up. He flinched when the pain hit him from every direction.
A groan worked its way out of him and he sat perfectly still,
waiting to either die or feel better. After a moment, things had improved
minutely and he swung his feet over the bed as delicately as if they were
His head swimming, he inhaled the scent of bacon and eggs drifting
up from the kitchen. For a second his stomach rebelled and he thought he might
have to lunge for the chamber pot, but the sensation passed and he breathed a
little easier. A soft rap at his door made him look up, his eyes rolling in
their sockets like rusty ball bearings. What he wouldn’t give for a cup of
willow bark or peppermint tea.
“Matthew, I just wanted to check on you. Are you all right?”
Naomi. And she didn’t sound as if she was addressing a
liquor-swilling, skirt-chasing scoundrel. Matthew cleared the dust from his
throat. “I’ll live. Come on in.”
The door opened an inch, stopped, and then Naomi pushed it all the
way open and stepped in. He noticed she kept her hand on the door knob.
Standing tall and straight like a general, she assessed him with
no emotion in her expression. “Hannah told me you busted your stitches open.”
Without waiting for a reply, she marched over to the curtains and
pulled them aside. Light exploded into the room and Matthew decided firing a
cannon next to his head would have been kinder. Groaning, he fell back on the
bed and laid his arm over his eyes. “That all she told you?”
In the silence as he waited for her answer, the ticking hallway
clock sounded like a giant Japanese gong. His head throbbed in time with it.
“Matthew, I wish …” she faded off, but he’d heard a twinge of
compassion in her tone. “Things haven’t worked out between us. You have to let
it go. Drinking and carousing don’t hurt me. That kind of behavior only hurts
you. You’re a business owner, a respectable man.” He heard the rustle of her
dress move back toward the door. “You’re allowed, I suppose, to drown your
sorrows, but you can’t let your drinking spiral out of control again. I’m not
worth it. No one is.”
Matthew almost smiled. Almost. “The blow—your engagement—it caught
me off guard. I fell off the wagon.” He lowered his voice and tried to sound
appropriately ashamed. “I’m sorry. I’m still not the man my brother was.”
“You can’t keep comparing yourself to him.”
He moved his hand to his chest and drank in her image. She stood
with her back to him, but he savored the curves of her waist and hips flattered
by a red, flower-covered calico dress. That long, golden braid that he’d so
often dreamed of undoing trailed down her back. What he wouldn’t give to have
all those soft waves rain down on him.
Holding his side, he forced himself to sit up, not making any
attempt to hide his pain. “Would you pour me a glass of water, Naomi?”
Naomi strode quickly to the pitcher beside his bed and poured him
a mug full. Matthew took a sip, making sure his mouth would function. Drier
than the desert, he finished the water in two gulps. The water settled his
stomach and did a lot to clear his head. Feeling more human now, he rolled the
mug back and forth in his hands as he wondered how to continue cultivating her
sympathy. She sat down beside him and he grinned inwardly.
“I’ve never been able to think straight around you, Naomi. Never.”
He turned to her, wishing he could gently grasp her hands in his, but, instead,
he tried to hold her gaze with a solemn expression. “I’ll never get over you.
You were my first love, woman.”
He saw the slightest movement in her lips at the use of the old
pet name. John used to call her that. Matthew had said it low and steely too,
like his brother used to. She swallowed and he knew he was getting somewhere.
Her eyes filled with unmistakable longing.
Slowly, like he was reaching out to a skittish pony, he raised his
hand and touched her hair. Her chest rose and fell faster as her gaze drifted
down to his mouth. He moved a hair closer, half-expecting her to pull away. She
didn’t move a muscle and he continued inching toward her.
“With you beside me, Naomi …” he spoke gently, reverently. Her
soft, pink lips a breath away, he promised her, “I could be a man like John.”
Naomi blinked and pulled away, leaving his hand floating in
mid-air. Her mouth fell open but she didn’t make a sound. Matthew saw the panic
growing in her eyes and reached for her hand. “Naomi …”
She stood and backed away, raising her hand to stop him. “Matthew,
no.” Her panicked expression changed into sorrow. “You’re not John. I’d give
anything if you were, but you’re not. We both have to move on.”
She turned and fled from his room. If he’d been in better
condition, he would have lunged for her, pressed her against the wall and
kissed her until she forgot John Miller, and that scoundrel Charles McIntyre
He sighed. She’d almost let him kiss her.
Clearly, she was still vulnerable.
He figured he had one more shot at Naomi … if Amaryllis could be
Naomi raced to the end of the hallway at the back of the hotel,
the closest, darkest corner she could find. Furious with herself, she leaned
her head against the wall and tried to keep from pounding on the wood with her
fists. Oh, she had come so close to doing something unforgivable. The
temptation, the promise of just one kiss to remind her of John …
Oh, Lord, what was I thinking?
She splayed her hands on the wall trying to hold back the shame.
Just as she felt Matthew’s breath brushing her lips, Charles’ face had flashed
before her. Matthew said he could be a man like John. No. He could not. Neither
could Charles. They should not be compared to John or ever asked to measure up.
They were their own men. And that was precisely why she loved Charles McIntyre.
He wasn’t trying to be anyone but himself.
A liberating sense of resolve enveloped her soul. She would not
fall prey to Matthew’s charms
again. Only one man mattered to her
now. Nearly betraying Charles had brought that home like a lightning strike.
Raising her chin, she stepped out of the shadows and ran into
Hannah coming out of her room, Little Billy on her hip. Her little sister
jumped back, clutching her son.
“Good grief, Naomi. You startled me.”
“I’m sorry.” She reached over and tickled her nephew’s ribs. “Good
mornin’, Dumplin’.” Little Billy’s eyes lit up with glee and he reached for
her. Melting into a gooey lump of love, Naomi took her precious nephew from his
mother and kissed his forehead. “How are you this morning? Is Mama done feeding
you? Ready to get the day started?”
Hannah chuckled and ruffled her son’s hair. “He was still asleep
when I got back from Doc’s, so I took a little nap, too.”
“Good. You needed the rest.” Naomi ran her fingers up and down
Little Billy’s chest. “Uh, oh, it’s the tickle spider!” Little Billy laughed
wildly and swatted at her hand but that spider just kept coming back for more.
“You’re so good with children. I hope you and Charles can have a
bunch.” Like an arrow piercing her lungs, Naomi felt the deflating sting, no
matter how unintentional, and apparently the pain showed. “I’m sorry, Naomi. I
shouldn’t have said that.”
She bit her lip and handed Little Billy back to Hannah. “No, it’s
fine. I am not going to worry about it. The doctor said I was capable, so
have a bunch or we won’t.” She rubbed her nephew’s back
and smiled at her sister, trying to force the illusion she was not concerned
about conceiving children. “So, what are we doing today to get ready for this
have a fitting, right after breakfast.” She put her
fingers to her lips. “Shhh. It’s supposed to be a surprise.” Naomi dipped her
head in agreement. “And Mollie and I are going to the mercantile to get a few
They walked down the hall toward the stairs as Hannah switched her
son to the other hip. “By the way,” Hannah stopped at the first door along the
hallway and stared at it, frowning. “You haven’t seen Amanda this morning, have
you? I knocked earlier but didn’t get an answer.”
That was puzzling. Although, considering the way the girl had
worked last night, Naomi wondered if she was still sleeping because she was
exhausted. “Try again.”
Hannah rapped on the door with the back of her hand. After several
seconds, she repeated the action, but much louder. When they still received no
response, Hannah questioned Naomi with a look. Naomi nodded and Hannah slowly
opened the door. “Amanda?”
Hunching her shoulders in a prepared apology, Hannah widened the
door and stepped into the room. Naomi stayed in the hallway but she could tell
from the darkness that Amanda hadn’t opened the curtains. Hannah crossed the
room and moved one aside to let in the light. Naomi stepped through the doorway
and knew immediately Amanda was gone.
Hannah turned slowly, surveying the room. Sighing, she shook her
head. The bed didn’t even have a wrinkle in it. “I knew something was wrong.
Last night, she seemed
that she might not have anything to do
Naomi folded her arms and stared down at the floor. “I don’t
understand this. Where would she go?
would she go?”
Naomi felt so badly for Mollie.
across the kitchen table from her, the girl sat beside Hannah and sipped her
coffee without any enthusiasm. She stared down into the steaming cup, her
expression forlorn, and sighed. “Sadly, I think I know where she might have
“I don’t understand, Mollie,” Naomi said, frustrated by Amanda’s
unexpected departure. “Why would she leave? This was her chance for a whole new
“I’ve been in this town over two years now. I saw girls get
proposed to all the time. And a few of the men doing the asking were really
good men. But, sometimes …” She licked her lips as she tried to find the words.
“Sometimes, the girls would bolt at the last second and go right back to
working in the saloon. It didn’t make any sense to me until one day a gal told
me she was too far gone. That life beats you down. Makes you believe you’re nothing.
That you don’t deserve anything better.” Mollie’s chin quivered, “I came too
close to believing that lie.”
Hannah reached over and took her friend’s hand. She didn’t say
anything. She didn’t need to. Mollie squeezed her hand in return and nodded. Naomi
watched the interaction, pleased that these two had become friends. They needed
each other, and each held the other accountable.
Mollie patted Hannah’s hand and started to rise. “I’ll meet you at
the mercantile. Let me see if I can find her.”
Hannah held on. “I’ll go with you if you like.”
“Uh, no, no, that’s all right. You go on. I’ll be along shortly.”
The wiggle in Mollie’s voice worried Naomi and she determined
wherever the girl was headed, she wasn’t going alone.
Much to Naomi’s dismay, she headed for Tent Town.
Holding the hem of her simple, beige homespun dress out of the
dust, she dogged Mollie’s path from a discreet distance. The girl wound her way
through cribs—the one-room shacks reserved for prostitutes—and ragged tents to
the dark heart of Defiance.
The tantalizing aroma of frying bacon and sizzling venison mingled
with the stench of urine and unwashed bodies. Many of the working girls sat
outside their abodes, half-dressed, faces gaunt, liquor bottles in their hands.
Unlike the haughty Flowers formerly of the Iron Horse, these girls would not
look at Naomi as she passed. The hopelessness here broke her heart. She
couldn’t imagine how it made Mollie feel.
She could have been any one of these girls.
But the reverse was also true, and that’s why they were wading
through this tide of broken spirits searching for Amanda.
The men here, some walking down the narrow, weedy street, some
sitting in front of their bedraggled tents, watched Mollie with brazen stares,
and then Naomi as she passed by moments later. To Mollie’s credit, she strode
with her head held high, eyes politely averted. Naomi attempted to do the same
as she scurried past the men, but the deeper she wandered in to Tent Town, the
more alone she felt. She didn’t belong here and Charles would be furious with
her for this expedition, one she regretted a little more with every wink and
hungry grin cast her way.
Lord, I’m not sure this was the smartest thing to do. Please keep
us safe … and help us find Amanda.
Mollie left the dusty main road, which was little more than a
rutted path, and cut through a small neighborhood of weather-beaten tents built
on flimsy, wooden foundations. An older man sat outside of one, shaving with a
straight razor. His water bowl rested on a tree stump and his mirror hung from
a stripped pine sapling. He watched her walk around the edge of his camp, but
only as a reflex. Bored with her, he went back to the spot above his lip and
ignored Naomi completely as she hurried through. Thankful for his inattention,
she skirted around another dwelling and emerged onto a row of surprisingly new,
crisp, white tents. Too close to Mollie, she stepped back and peered around the
corner, peeking through the needles of a scraggly cedar.
Mollie had stopped. Naomi followed the path of her gaze and
realized she had spotted Amanda sitting outside the next tent, rolling a
stocking up one leg. Mollie’s shoulders slumped and she walked slowly up to the
girl. “Amanda, what are you doing here?” The disappointment in Mollie’s voice
tugged at Naomi’s heart.
Startled, Amanda dropped her leg and stood up. The surprise
quickly changed to disinterest. Waving her hand dismissively, the girl dropped
back down to her log seat. Wearing nothing but a dingy camisole and simple
petticoat, she hiked the undergarment up to her thigh to finish with her
stockings. “I decided I don’t like the idea of being beholden to Mr. McIntyre.”
“That’s an excuse and you know it.” Amanda spun on the log,
turning her back on her guest, and started working a stocking up her other leg.
Mollie’s hands clenched into fists. “You’re afraid.”
Amanda’s hands slowed. “I ain’t afraid.” But there was no
conviction in her voice.
“Yes, you are.” Mollie softened her tone and walked around to face
Amanda. “You’re afraid you don’t have what it takes to walk away from this. To
take responsibility for yourself instead of letting men use you.”
Amanda’s head jerked up. “You shouldn’t be so holier-than-thou.
I’ve seen girls like you try to change.”
“They always come back to it,” a gruff voice taunted from inside
the tent. The flap flicked up and a man stepped out. He was tall, with unkempt
chestnut hair that flew in every direction. His shirt, half-tucked and
wrinkled, hung open, and his suspenders lounged lazily on his hips. He rubbed
Amanda’s shoulders and stared at Mollie. Only able to see the man from the
back, Naomi could see his rigid stance that seemed defiant. “In a year,
give up and come right back to what you know.” He squeezed Amanda’s shoulders and
handed her a tin flask. “Ain’t that right, Amanda?”
Amanda didn’t say anything. With shaky hands, she uncorked the
flask and took a swig. She paused for a moment, as if the liquid sliding down
her throat brought her peace. Mollie stared at the container. “What is that?”
The man took it out of Amanda’s hand and raised it for Mollie to
see. “Why, this is my special brew. Amanda said she had an affinity for
laudanum and bourbon—”
“Laudanum?” Mollie growled through clenched teeth. She dropped to
her knees in front of Amanda. “Is that why you left? Are you addicted?”
Naomi bit her lip to stifle a gasp. What a mess the girl had
gotten herself into. She was tempted to step out of hiding, but Mollie spoke
before she could.
“Amanda, please come back to the hotel with me. We can get you
cleaned up, we can help you—”
The man shoved Mollie, knocking her on her bottom, and jerked
Amanda to her feet. “Amanda and I have more business inside. Take your
preachin’ someplace else.”
Naomi started forward, but thought better of interfering.
Something told her that Mollie had to handle this. Clenching her fists, she
settled back and prayed she was doing the right thing by sitting this out …
unless the man touched Mollie again.
“All right.” Mollie climbed to her feet, her gaze locked on
Amanda. “I just want to say one thing: You do not have to live like this.
There’s a way out. Find me when you’re ready.”
“Sure,” the girl whispered dreamily.
The despair on Mollie’s face said she’d hit a spiritual brick
wall. Sad for Mollie as well as Amanda, Naomi lowered her head and turned away.
At a weedy, tramped down intersection a few yards off, she stopped
to wait for Mollie. To her right, laundry and tents swayed in the breeze. On
her left, the Broken Spoke Saloon loomed like a house of horror and she
shuddered. The canvas had torn in several places, especially on top. Ripped
sides flicked noisily in the breeze. The wood façade, warped and twisted,
barely gave the front door anything to hang onto and it sagged as if a giant
had tugged on it.
Rose had gone to work there after leaving the Iron Horse. She had
attacked Diamond Lil in there, blinding the woman, and planned her attack on
the sisters from there. She was rotting in the state prison now, and this
saloon, closed for the last several weeks, was doing the same thing. Charles,
the Broken Spoke’s owner, had shut it down too.
Naomi shivered, glad she’d never had to see the inside of such a
“Did you follow me?”
Naomi flinched, unsure of whether Mollie sounded upset or pleased.
She turned to her friend who was slowly walking toward her. The girl carried
herself straight and tall, but her expression was tense. Naomi sighed and
shoved her hands into her pockets. “I’m sorry, Mollie, but I didn’t think it
was safe for you to come over here by yourself.”
After a moment, the tension left her and she smiled, though it was
a sad one. “I guess you heard then?” Naomi nodded. Mollie wagged her head. “I
don’t know what to do. She’s throwing away such an incredible opportunity.”
The two girls ambled along, side by side, their heads bowed with
defeat. “You can’t help people who don’t want to change—even God lets us make
our own choices, Mollie. And He doesn’t force Himself on us.” Naomi thought the
words sounded like platitudes and she wished God had made her more
compassionate. “At least Amanda knows there is a place she can go. That we’ll
take her in—”
She heard Mollie gasp and wheeled around reflexively. A man had
spun the girl to face him and was digging his fingers into her shoulder.
“Lordy, Lordy,” the mostly-toothless, bald miner sang. “If it ain’t little
Daisy, the Flower that spouts Bible speeches!”
Mollie snatched free from the man’s grip and stepped back. Paling
at the sight of him, she whispered, “Tom Hawthorn.”
Naomi didn’t know the man, but she recognized the name. Hawthorn
had nearly killed Mollie last November. Naomi had unfortunately arrived for the
aftermath of the brutal beating. Vicious bruises on the girl’s face and ribs,
the bloody, broken nose and swollen eyes all smacked of a man with some deadly
Mollie took another step back and raised her chin. Naomi felt a
surge of pride. Oh, she had been beaten, but this man had not broken her.
Hawthorn had served thirty days in jail, followed by Charles banishing him from
town. His return testified to either a mental disorder or a death wish.
Mollie echoed her thoughts. “You’ve taken leave of your senses,
Hawthorn. Mr. McIntyre sent you packing. He won’t like it that you’re back
without his permission.”
The miner blinked and the unmistakable stink of alcohol hit Naomi.
Dread wiggled in her gut as his lip curled into an ugly sneer. He cursed,
taking the Lord’s name in vain, and stepped toward Mollie. Naomi took a step
Hawthorn ignored her and leaned down to within an inch of Mollie’s
face. “I don’t care what McIntyre likes. I’m a free man and I’ll go and come as
I please. I got a stake in a claim here and ain’t leaving it just because he
“If you hurt me, he’ll come after you. You’re already in a lot of
Hawthorn laughed, an evil cackle that made the hairs rise up on
Naomi’s arms, and he grabbed hold of Mollie. “You and me got things to do,
missy. And if you try that Jesus talk on me again, I’ll snap your neck like a
“Take your filthy hands off of her right now.” Livid, Naomi tried
to force herself between the two people. She could barely contain her rage. She
this kind of man, the kind who got his courage from a
bottle and preferred an easy target to batter. The thought of sinking her
fingernails into his face almost made her smile.
“Well, if it ain’t a mouse trying to roar like a lion.” He
snatched Mollie to his chest with one arm and shoved Naomi away with the other.
Sniffing, he surveyed her, top to bottom and back again. Naomi knew she didn’t
intimidate the heavy, well-muscled Hawthorn, but she was still dangerous, if he
had enough sense to see it. “Well,” he said again, a lecherous grin spreading
across his pockmarked face. “Why don’t you make me? Better yet …” As if offering
to assist a lady into a carriage, he shifted Mollie off to his side and
extended a dirty, scarred hand to Naomi. “Why don’t we all three go back to my
tent for a little entertainment.”
Smiling sweetly, Naomi softened her gaze and cocked her head ever
so slightly. Unfortunately, she had underestimated the level of debauchery that
still seethed on this side of town and now she and Mollie were in a fix. Near
as she could tell, there was only one way to get out of it.
Hawthorn’s lewd grin spread as he fell for Naomi’s beguiling
invitation. Holding her smile, she hiked her skirt and delivered a ferocious
kick to the man’s groin. As he doubled over with a groan, Naomi yelled, “Run,
Mollie! Run!” Mollie easily wrenched loose from him, but as she and Naomi
turned to dash for their freedom, Naomi’s head snapped back and pain shot down
her neck. “Run, Mollie!” she screamed again as the man used her braid like a
leash to snatch her back. “Get Charles!”