Authors: Heather Blanton
“Then let them come. I can
Naomi gently showered the row of tiny green corn sprouts with the
watering can. Never much of a gardener, she had to admit that the pleasant
spring sun, the smell of damp earth, and the promise of corn ears dripping with
melted butter did at least make the chore bearable. It also put her in a mind
Back home in Carolina, the
weather broke quickly. Spring meant warm dirt between your toes, and quick cool
showers that opened the door to suffocating humidity. She recalled several
spring plantings, walking with John as he plowed the dark earth. Sleeves rolled
up, her hair tucked in a straw hat, she would happily amble alongside him,
hunting for arrowheads in the freshly-turned earth. He would steer his Belgian,
Sampson, with skill and confidence, the big horse an equal to John’s brawny
She let a wistful smile
break. Simple, sun-washed days. Life with John had been peaceful and
predictable. Her oak, he had covered her with his strength and steady love.
Charles, on the other hand, made her feel as if she were standing in an open
field, waiting for lightning to strike. When he turned those spellbinding,
consuming eyes on her, the air around them thrummed with a charge that
quickened her pulse. And when he touched her, she felt heat shoot from his fingers
down to her soul.
“You’re going to drown
those sprouts, Naomi.”
“What?” She blinked, saw the
small river flowing down the row, and jerked the water can back. “Oh! Good
Mollie laughed, and Naomi
wondered at the sound. The girl had been a weak, pale, broken Flower in
Charles’ brothel, which he had called the Garden. Now a contagious smile
radiated from her and her pretty petite face, not downcast anymore, glowed with
true peace. Naomi had seen God work in people, but in Mollie, he had created a
fair-haired angel with a heart so full of Jesus, it was humbling to be around
Her sins, which are many,
are forgiven, for she loved much.
“Good thing you came along
when you did,” Naomi said, hugging the watering can.
“That must have been some
Naomi started to wave away
the thought, but it led to another and she peered sidelong at Mollie.
The girl took a step back.
“What? I don’t think I like that look in your eye.”
Mollie had been somewhat
forthcoming about life in the Garden, but she had shared more with Hannah. Now
Naomi saw an opportunity to gain a little understanding of Charles.
The girl sucked in a breath
as if Naomi had asked her to raise the dead. “Oh, I don’t think I’m qualified
to answer that. I don’t know his heart. I just know what I’ve seen.”
Naomi studied the corn at
her feet and scratched her nose. “He warned me about women who might show up in
town this summer. Women he’s been … intimate with.” Jealousy gnawed at her.
Angry over feeling so vulnerable, she shifted her gaze back to Mollie. “He said
if I couldn’t bear up under it, under his reputation …” Naomi shook her head,
groping for a way to explain his concern, and now hers. “He’s afraid he’ll hurt
me. And he’s worried I might end up hating him.” Her jaw tightened as she
imagined an encounter with any of his former lady friends. “I cannot imagine
looking any of these women in the eye, Mollie.” She—and probably Mollie—knew it
wouldn’t end well. Naomi wasn’t exactly known for her patience or compassion.
God still had quite a bit of work to do on both fronts, as far as Naomi was
Mollie pulled her long
blonde braid to the front of her shoulder and clutched it with both hands.
After a moment, she nodded. “I think that he loves you dearly, Naomi. And I
also believe he’s finished with other women.”
Naomi shifted and hugged the
watering can tighter. “But …”
“Personally, I think summer
doves aren’t going to be his biggest problem.”
Naomi tilted her head. “I
Mollie took a few halting
steps down the row to Naomi, glancing around as if looking for eavesdroppers,
then spoke in a quieter voice. “Before you got here—before he hired Marshal
Beckwith—Mr. McIntyre ran this town. His word was law, and he had the
wherewithal to back it up. He wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, if you
understand my meaning.” She paused, her brow diving. “True, a lot of women have
loved him, but I know a lot of men who hate him. If they hear about his finding
religion and trying to be respectable, well …” Mollie shoved her hands in her
pockets and shrugged. “Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I doubt all the tests of
his faith, or yours, will be wearing skirts.”
The man’s big, meaty fist connected with Billy Page’s jaw like a
Pain exploded in his face,
the force of the punch knocking him back onto the poker table. It shattered
beneath him, gouging his back as he fell to the floor in a shower of beer, cards,
and coins. His head buzzed and his ears rang with the disgruntled cries from
the motley crew of card players angered over the destruction of their game.
Billy attempted to scramble to his feet, but hands the size of bear paws
grabbed his lapels and snatched him up.
He was now eye-to-eye with
his attacker. Billy’s opponent in the “friendly” game of cards glared at him
with one glittering brown eye as the other hid behind a black patch. A bushy,
matted salt-and-pepper beard covered most of the big man’s jowls. Tobacco juice
dribbled from the corner of his mouth. As high and wide as an Amish barn, the
big man lifted Billy completely off his feet and shook him like a rag doll.
“You think you can cheat me, city boy?” he growled in a gravelly voice. “You’ve
just made the biggest mistake of your life.”
Billy tossed his blond hair
out of his eyes and blinked. His first thought was how sick and tired he was of
being controlled. He’d left his domineering father, suffocating Southern
society, and the addictive Page fortune to come after Hannah. He wasn’t about
to let this gorilla who didn’t like losing at poker stop him.
Billy’s better judgment
snapped like a kite string. With all the force he could muster in his own
substantially smaller frame, he brought his knee up hard, hoping to hit
anything sensitive. The big man’s face turned purple and contorted oddly,
inflating as if someone had pumped a load of air into his head. He let go of
Billy, clutched at his groin, and doubled over.
No, Billy had never been in
a fight. But he did know how to box. In a flash he positioned his feet
properly, curled his hands into tight fists, and delivered an uppercut to the
man’s jaw that just about sent him airborne. Billy felt the bones in his hand
break, but he ignored the streaking pain as his opponent straightened with the
blow, staggered, and then recovered. To Billy’s amazement, the man balled up
his fists, sneered, and threw a wild haymaker. The blow would have knocked a
slower man across the county line, but Billy dodged, weaved inside, and tapped
the man hard on the jaw with his remaining good hand. His opponent shook off
the blows and threw another wild punch which nearly clipped Billy because he’d
underestimated the man’s reach.
But Billy had him now. This
big, burly fellow didn’t know how to box—he only knew how to use brute force.
Billy raised his fists, hunched up his shoulders, picked a spot on the man’s
jaw to target, and—
Stars and pain exploded like
fireworks in the back of his head. Something sharp and wet rained down over his
face, and Billy nearly gagged from the stench of stale beer. His knees buckled
with a jolt, and a black fog reached out to grab him as thunderous laughter
rang out around him. He thought of Hannah. Was she living in a worse town than
this one? He wanted to find the answer, but the mist quickly thickened into
Throbbing, bone-deep soreness crept into his consciousness, but
Billy didn’t open his eyes. There was so much pain everywhere. He took a moment
to determine if anything
hurt. His hand throbbed. His head
pounded. His nose had its own heartbeat, as did his ribs. Something rough dug
into his cheek. Gravel?
Billy blinked, trying to focus. A warped board filled his vision
and weeds sprouted inches from his face. Confused, he tried moving his head.
The motion caused a searing pain to shoot up his neck and down his arm. He
realized he was lying on his stomach in the dirt, head twisted to the left,
arms bent behind his back. Pushing through the pain, he slowly rose to all
fours and carefully rotated his head to loosen the kink in his neck.
His hair fell over his eyes.
Peering through it, in the faint, predawn light, he could see he was in an
overgrown, trash-littered alley at the rear of two weathered buildings. Empty
kegs and barrels loomed over him. He staggered to his feet and immediately fell
against the closest wall. He figured he must be out back behind the saloon.
A nearby door opened and a
rotund woman marched out, carrying an empty pony keg on her shoulder. She
spotted Billy immediately and grunted. “One of the girls said I might find you
here.” She was a big-boned woman with weathered features and drab brown hair
pulled back in a tight bun. She set the container atop another and wiped her
hands on her skirt. “You check your pockets?”
Understanding slowly dawned
on Billy, and he slapped his pants, rifled through his coat pockets, and
searched his vest. All empty. The fight came back to him now, his own
cockiness, the rap on the back of his head. He reached up and touched a pretty
impressive goose egg. What had they hit him with—Montana? The possibility that
the scoundrel would cheat had never entered Billy’s mind. And now he had
nothing. He couldn’t pay for his room, he couldn’t eat, he couldn’t get his
horse out of the livery … and he couldn’t get to Hannah. Wouldn’t his father
just love to be here to gloat?
“Listen, son,” the woman
said, draping her arm over a large whiskey barrel. “That there was Earl H.
Goode and friends that whooped you. They scouted for Quantrill. You’d best
watch yourself in Dodge. Better yet, light a shuck out of Dodge.”
A man on the train had
warned Billy that Dodge City was rough—almost as rough as Defiance, the meanest
mining town in the Rockies. And Hannah was in Defiance, along with his son. He
imagined her surrounded by men like Earl H. Goode. The thought twisted his guts
and stirred up an urgency to get to her that rushed through his blood like
His trip west had started
out at a leisurely pace. A few races in this town or that, wherever he decided
to take Prince Valiant off the train and out for a little fresh air.
Admittedly, he’d been dragging his feet, putting off his reunion with Hannah
because he was afraid of her reaction. Now he was afraid
H. Goode had put it all into perspective. If Dodge City was the wickedest
little city in America, what did that make Defiance?
No place for Hannah and his
But how was he supposed to
get to her without money? He almost laughed at the reversal in his fortunes as
he raked a bloodied, swollen hand through his hair, clearing his line of sight.
“Ma’am, I’d be happy to leave your warm and friendly community.” Billy
straightened and looked the woman in the eye. “Only, for the first time in my
life, and now when it matters most of all, I have no money.”
Maybe the lady barkeep got
the joke. She chuckled, the action jiggling her frame like gelatin, and hooked
her thumb at the barrels. “Tell ya what, son. If you can load those in a
freight wagon and get ’em down to the warehouse, it’s worth a dollar to me.”
Billy eyed the barrels. They
were stacked two and three high, and they lined the length of the saloon.
‘Miserable’ wouldn’t begin to describe the chore, considering his present
The woman seemed to read his
mind. “You can start with fried eggs and a cup of coffee. Even
wouldn’t ask a man to do that job on an empty stomach, especially one who’s had
the hound beat out of him.”
Her sideways smile struck
Billy as sincere. He nodded. “Your offer is more than agreeable, ma’am. It may
be a lifesaver.” At least he would be able to get his horse out of the livery.
The woman ushered Billy into a small kitchen at the back of the
saloon and sidestepped over to a potbellied stove. She cracked two eggs and
dripped them into a pan, then tossed the shells into a bucket. As if she could
do this in her sleep, she scrambled the eggs with a fork in one hand, while the
other snagged a mug hanging from a nail and set it in front of him. The sublime
scent of fresh coffee filled the room.
“Name is Eleanor, by the
Stiffly, Billy sank into a ladder-back chair at a small table.
“Billy Page. And thank you.” The friendly whiff of breakfast brightened his
spirits a little, and he thought there might yet be hope for the day.
“One of the girls was
tellin’ me you put up a pretty good fight last night.” Eleanor slid the eggs
onto a tin plate and passed it to him along with a fork. “A dollar’s all I can
give ya to move the barrels. Will it get you out of town?” she asked, filling
his cup with coffee.
Billy shoved a bite of egg
into his mouth and savored the warm yolk touched with a hint of salt. He hadn’t
realized he was so hungry. “A dollar will get my horse out of the livery. If I
can line up a race for him today, I should be set to move on to the next town.”
“That’s mighty confident
talk.” He heard another egg start sizzling in the pan.
“I have a mighty fast
She stopped stirring and
turned to him. She gave him the once-over with a skeptical arch in her brow.
“You look like a dude in those clothes.” Billy raised a hand to his chest,
defending his well-tailored, but filthy three-piece suit. “And even with the
swollen nose, I can tell you’re handsome, but you’re pale as milk. You’re, oh,
what, a banker’s son?” She didn’t wait for a confirmation. Instead, she tossed
him a biscuit from the bread warmer and kept talking. “Dodge City is just dying
to chew up somebody like you and spit you out.” She turned back to the stove
and harrumphed her disapproval. “Might as well be wearing a sign.”
Billy touched his nose
gingerly, as if it might fall off any second. “Apparently I was wearing one
last night that said, ‘Kick me.’”
Eleanor’s shoulders jiggled
again, then she jerked her head up and stared at the wall. “You’re the one with
Billy wondered how she knew
but nodded obligingly. “He’s as fast as lightning and as light on his feet as
the wind. He’s how I’ve been making my way out West, pulling together races. I
shouldn’t have any trouble making it from here to Defiance.”
“Defiance?” She did turn
then, eyes wide. “Why in Sam Hill would you want to go to that cesspool? Ain’t
Dodge mean enough for ya?”
Billy quickly went back to
the remnants of the egg.
“Ooooh,” She drawled out the
word knowingly and went back to the skillet, “a woman. Well, let me tell ya,
boy. If she’s in Defiance, you don’t want to find her.”
“It’s the only thing I
want.” He heard the misery in his voice and hated the childish sound of it, but
miserable he was. He might as well spill the whole story. “I ran off and left
her … and she was going to have my baby.”
Eleanor sighed and shook her
head. She mumbled something about the foolishness of youth. “So it’s your plan
to go find her. And then what?”
Billy thought he detected a
note of cynicism in the question. Maybe he was young and foolish, but he had to
try to piece things back together with Hannah if he wanted to call himself any
kind of a man. “I was a coward and ran. My father had a lot to do with it, but
that’s all behind me. Nothing will stop me from at least asking her
forgiveness—and seeing my son.”
Eleanor slid her egg onto a
plate and joined Billy at the rickety table. She settled into a seat, then hit
him with a bold stare. “Defiance is—” She bit off the words and softened her
expression. “Well, a girl alone there—”
“She’s not alone,” he cut
in, understanding the implication. “Her two sisters are with her. I know what
you’re trying to say, but I know these girls. They’ve opened up a decent hotel
Eleanor sat quietly while
Billy finished off his egg and scraped up the last of the yolk with the
biscuit. Finally, she spoke. “When you take the barrels to the warehouse, the
man will count them and give you back my deposit. Keep the money and place a
bet for me on your horse.”