I’ve been wanting to write this book since the day a place called Harmony came into my mind. Many of you have traveled this journey with me and grown to know and love the people of Harmony.
Now we’re going all the way back to the beginning, to the start of the town. For those of you who read the series, you’ll love knowing how it all started. For those who haven’t visited Harmony yet, you’ll be stepping into a community at the birth of not only a town, but of friendships that will last for lifetimes. If you enjoy this tale, you might just stay awhile and read the rest of my stories.
I’ve always loved historicals. For me, early heroes in Texas always walk off the pages and into my heart.
I think you’ll feel that way about Clint Truman, who believes he doesn’t have enough heart left to break; and Gillian Matheson, who has loved one woman since he first saw her; and, of course, Patrick McAllen, who is young enough to believe that love comes easy.
Many books I write take on a life of their own. In this one I felt like I was meeting these men and their wives, not making them up. Truman stepped onto the pages with a stubbornness that his descendants had in later books: Matheson’s strong need to protect and help others is deeply rooted, and Patrick’s laughter shows through in every scene in which he appears.
So climb into the covered wagon and come along with me to Texas. I promise, this story will keep you reading long into the night.
DEAD OF WINTER
Harmon Ely limped out of the trading post he’d built where two streams crossed in the panhandle of Texas. He’d suffered through a fire that burned his first building to the ground, two robberies, and a dozen winter storms that almost froze him out.
“It’s been a good ten years, Davy.” He grinned at the hairy yellow dog a few feet away.
The hound looked up at Harmon with sad eyes that called the old man a liar.
Harmon laughed. “I know you’re gonna be surprised, but I figure it’s about time we had a little company, and I don’t mean the beef herders and saddle tramps I usually see. I want families, kids playing around the place, and a town growing up on all this land I bought after the war.”
The old mutt named after Davy Crockett still didn’t look interested.
Harmon lifted a board as high as he could and hammered it up on the front of his store like it was a picture. “I’ve been thinking. We’ll need a lawman, and someone who knows a thing or two about building a town, and a carpenter to carry it all out. I wouldn’t mind having a few cooks and kids and throw in a schoolmarm to teach them what’s right and a preacher to make them feel guilty if they don’t follow along.”
Davy spread out like a rug on the slice of sun-warmed porch.
Harmon lifted a can of paint. Slowly, he wrote Population across the top of the sign. “I don’t care how long it takes, I’m gonna have me a town.”
In the middle of the sign, he painted a big number 1. Then down at the bottom he added in smaller letters, and one dog.
“A town,” he said to himself, since Davy was snoring, “that even my family would want to come to. A nice place where folks will pass by and say, ‘There’s old Harmon Ely’s town.’”
Clint Truman hit the floor so hard his teeth rattled, but, as always, he didn’t have the sense to stay down. He came up swinging, ready for another round.
The next hard blow from the miner he’d decided to fight sent him flying through the saloon’s swinging doors and into the muddy street. He slid several feet, picking up horse shit along with the mud as he dug up the road. Then he just lay still, letting the rain beat on him for a while.
When he tried to straighten, a heavy boot landed on his chest, holding him down like a boulder. Clint stared up, but the rain and clouds offered him only a shadow of the man above him. A wide shadow.
“Evening, Truman.” Sheriff Lightstone’s voice matched his three hundred pound body: big and frightening. “You drunk enough to listen to me now?”
“Soon as I finish the fight, Sheriff,” Clint promised.
“The fight’s over.” Lightstone lifted the gun belt that circled his ample waist. “We need to talk, Truman, before you kill someone and I have to arrest you. Now, we can do it here with you in the mud, or we can do it with you behind bars, but we’re going to have a talk.”
“Hell,” Clint said, hating both choices. “How about you buy me a cup of coffee before you get into telling me how to live my life?”
“Fair enough, but clean up first. Between the blood and the mud, there ain’t an inch of you left unaffected. I’m tired of standing in this drizzle anyway. You’ve got ten minutes to meet me at Maggie’s. If you don’t pass her inspection to get in, I’m putting you in jail and letting you dry out until the mud flakes off and the bleeding scabs over.”
Clint stood and watched the sheriff head toward the only café willing to serve drunks in Huntsville, Texas. He hated being bossed around, and he wasn’t trying to kill himself by fighting. He just had a ton of anger built up in him and needed to get it out. In a town like Huntsville someone was always looking for a good fight.
Walking over to the horse trough, he dunked his head in and shook, guessing the horses wouldn’t appreciate him bloodying the water. He pulled the plug at the bottom of the trough and let water run out into the river already flowing in the street.
Thunder rumbled and the sky dumped buckets down on him. Clint turned his head up and took the full blast. “Give it your best shot!” he yelled, waiting for the lightning. Life couldn’t get any more painful. He probably wouldn’t feel a direct hit.
A kid of about ten ran past him, bumping into his outstretched arm. “Sorry, mister,” he shouted over the storm. “Didn’t you notice it’s raining?”
“Hell,” Clint answered. “It’s been raining all my life.”
He replaced the plug in the trough, then walked to a bench outside the saloon and lifted his saddlebags from where he’d left them three hours and several drinks ago. He might not have the sense to come out of the rain, but at least he’d left his horse in the barn.
Reluctantly, Clint headed to the back door of Maggie’s place. Once inside the mudroom, he stripped off his shirt and dried with a towel the owner tossed him.
Maggie watched from the doorway of the kitchen as he cleaned up. “You’re one hunk of a man, Clint Truman. If you ever gave up fighting and turned to loving, you’d make some woman very happy.” Her inspection wasn’t shy. “That scar running across your hand, or the one on your jaw, don’t take nothing away from that perfect body. Broad shoulders, slim waist and . . .” She grinned. “Wouldn’t mind if you turned around so I could finish my description.”
He growled at her.
Maggie held up her hands and tried her best to look innocent. “Just making notes to pass along to some woman looking for a new lover.”
“There’s no more loving left in me, Maggie.” He said the words as if he were swearing. “You mind turning around while I change my pants?”
“Not a chance. An old widow like me don’t get to see a full-grown man strip but a few times, and I’m not missing this opportunity. My first husband used to wash in the creek and come back to the house naked, but he was so hairy I thought he was a bear heading my way half the time.”
“You got anything to drink, Maggie?”
“Sure.” She stepped away and he exchanged soaked trousers for damp ones from his bag.
When she returned she handed him a cup of coffee, and he frowned.
“Trust me, honey, you need this. That bull of a sheriff is out front waiting and he don’t look happy.”
Clint downed half of the hot liquid that tasted more like the mud outside than coffee. He’d known this talk with the sheriff was coming, so he might as well get it over with.
Thanking Maggie for the towel and the coffee, Clint stepped through the kitchen door to the café. Sure enough, Lightstone sat by the window staring out at his town.
Clint took the seat across from him without saying a word.
“You eat today?” the sheriff asked.
“I’m not a kid. I don’t need mothering,” Clint snapped. At thirty he’d about decided he didn’t need anything from anyone.
“You ever wear anything but black?”
“No. Why the hell do you care?” Clint needed a drink. He had a feeling this wasn’t going to go well.
The sheriff ignored his comment. “I heard you fought with Terry’s Texas Rangers during the war. Some say you were a crack shot. Maybe even the best in the South.”
“Some talk too much. Most of what I shot was game for dinner. I don’t want to talk about the war. Wasted years. We lost, you know. The whole damn country lost.”
“I know how you feel. I thought I was fighting for Texas. For rights, then found out later it was all about slavery. By then, it was too late and I was mostly just fighting to stay alive.” He stared down at his cup as if looking for the answer. “What’d you do when you got home?”
“I drifted for a while, trying to shake ghosts following me. My folks kept a little farm going during the war, so I finally settled there. I helped them out for a few years until they passed on. Then, I thought I’d marry and start a family.” Clint didn’t go on. He couldn’t. The memory of his two little girls crying still haunted his dreams.
Lightstone waited for a while then added, “I know enough to fill in the details, Truman. I heard your wife and daughters died a few years ago of the fever. Folks say you burned the house and the barns the morning after you buried them.”
Clint didn’t comment. He felt like his whole life was simply acts in a play, and some days he didn’t want to step on the stage. Sometimes he thought the ache to feel his wife, Mary, by his side would collapse his chest, or the need to run his hand over one of his daughters’ curly hair would almost take him to his knees. They were gone so fast, like his parents and all the boys he’d joined up with to go to war. Some nights, in his nightmares, he felt like a time traveler going back to them all. They’d smile at him and wave, then curl up and die like dried leaves caught in a campfire.
Clint took a long drink of his coffee and waited for the sheriff’s lecture. He’d heard it before: different people, different towns. If he had enough caring left in him to change, he would try one more time, but he no longer saw the point.
“Truman,” the sheriff began. “I need your help with a matter.”
Clint raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t expected the sheriff would want a favor. Lightstone was only passable nice to him on a good day, and the huge man had very few of them in a town like Huntsville.
“Now, hear me out before you decide. Promise. This is me asking for something, not me telling you what to do. You make up your own mind.”
“All right. I’ll hear you out,” Clint answered. He didn’t plan to walk back over to the saloon until the rain let up anyway. He had no other clothes to change into.
Lightstone leaned back. “I got a friend I fought with during the war who wants to build a town. He’s been running a trading post up in the wild part of Texas where the Indian Wars have been going on for ten years. He makes good money, thanks to the cattle drives coming through and crazy settlers who wanted to move that far north, but he wants more. He wants to have a community. He says his wife refused to go with him because that part of the state is too wild. Thanks to Colonel McKenzie and a new fort moving in, it may be settling down.”
“How does this affect me?”
“My friend is a good businessman, but the war left him crippled up. He’s been robbed several times, and once they shot him and left him for dead. If he’s going to do this, he’ll need someone good with a gun working for him. I’ve heard, even if you don’t usually wear a gun belt, that there is no better shot in the state.”
“I’m not a hired gun, Sheriff. Not interested.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t be that. He’s offering every man who comes to work for him forty acres and a house to live in. If you stay two years, he’ll deed the place over to you. He’ll pay a fair wage and you help him build the town. A real town where folks can walk the streets without worrying about being robbed or shot.”
Clint was low on money and knew he’d have to look for a job soon, but he never planned to settle anywhere again. He might get attached to folks if he did that, and he never, ever planned to let that happen again. Signing on to be his friend or loved one was a death warrant.
“You’d be hauling supplies and running cattle and who knows what else, but you’d also carry a gun. You’d be protecting hardworking folks and running off those who are looking for trouble. This time you’d be fighting to keep people alive. That part of Texas has very little law of any kind. Trouble will ride in at full gallop more than once over two years, I’m guessing. You’ll earn that house and land.”
Lightstone leaned halfway across the table and yelled for Maggie to bring them a couple of meals. He didn’t have to say more; she only served one choice a day.
She yelled that he needed to stop yelling at her.
The sheriff smiled. “I’d marry that woman if she’d have me, but she says four husbands were enough.”
Clint didn’t want to picture the two in bed, but the image came all the same. Both were built wide and thick. Maggie told him once that she was simply big-boned. Proof of dinosaurs, he remembered thinking at the time. If she and the sheriff ever did get together and make love, they’d shake the house.
Lightstone drew him back to the conversation. “What have you got to lose? The trip north, even if you decided not to stay, would do you good.”
“All right. I’ll go.” Clint had nothing else to do anyway. He could be packed in an hour. “But I make no promises that I’ll stay two years.”
The sheriff nodded as if they’d made a bargain. “Oh, I forgot, you have to take one thing with you.”
“What’s that?” He was thinking maybe his own horse, or rifle.
The sheriff smiled and added, “A wife.”
Clint Truman finally sobered up enough to realize just how crazy the sheriff’s plan was. He didn’t mind traveling across the state to look for work, but picking a wife from the women being released from prison tonight was loco.
Yet somehow, here he was standing next to a mountain of a lawman waiting for the prison gates to open.
Sheriff Lightstone stood close, probably making sure he didn’t run. The night seemed smoky with low clouds, and so much moisture lingered in the air Clint could feel it on his face.
“Now it’s not that hard, Clint. I’ve seen fellows do this before. Last month a man I’ve known for years met a little pickpocket outside these gates. He never had much luck with women, but they talked all night, then at dawn woke up a preacher. She had to pay, of course. Somehow my old friend couldn’t find his money.”
Clint didn’t laugh. He had no idea if the sheriff was telling the truth or making a joke.
“Way I see it,” Lightstone continued, “marrying you will look better to a woman on her own than her taking the only other choice.” He pointed with his head at a wagon pulling up twenty yards away. “If no one picks them up, that guy, who goes by Harden, offers them employment at a whorehouse down near Houston. He makes regular runs picking up women leaving prison. Once they step in that wagon there’s no going back to a regular kind of life.”
Clint looked at the two women waiting in the back of the wagon as the sheriff continued, “He bailed them two soiled doves out an hour ago from county jail. One knifed a guy. They kept her in jail until they were sure her customer wasn’t going to die. The other lady of the evening stole money from a patron at Harden’s place. She looked fine when Harden picked her up, but judging from the bruises on her face he made her sorry she caused him trouble. Women leaving prison and climbing in that wagon know exactly where they’re going.”
As Clint stared, the one with a black eye lowered her head. Neither woman looked to be eighteen, but both were worn down by life. He doubted either would make it to thirty.
Several other people waited around the gate, looking more like mourners than greeters. One man sat on a bench playing with his knife, striking it again and again into the corner of the bench. Clint noticed an old couple and a kid of about sixteen close to the locked door.
The gate rattled and a guard stepped out.
“Might not be many tonight,” Lightstone whispered. “Sometimes there is trouble in the prison and they don’t let out many. Used to let them out in the morning, but too many people complained about them walking the streets. County gives each enough money to take the stage out of town, but some spend it on drinks the first few hours they’re out.” He frowned. “I was kind of expecting one woman to be released tonight. She’d be worth considering even if we have to come back next week.”
Clint had already decided that he wouldn’t be coming again. This idea was far too crazy to repeat. Once the sheriff saw there was no wife material here, he’d drop the plan.
“This is a bad idea. Getting married because the job description says to bring a wife just doesn’t seem right,” Clint mumbled to himself, guessing the sheriff wouldn’t be listening. “How do I know one of these women hasn’t killed someone, like maybe her first husband?”
“I doubt any have done more than they had to, or more than any one of us did during the war. Toward the end we all stole to eat and killed to stay alive. I’m guessing they did the same.”
Clint didn’t argue, but picking a wife this way seemed like scraping the bottom of the barrel. He looked down at his worn boots and decided he was already at the bottom. Half the townspeople thought of him as a drunk, and the other half felt sorry for him and offered to buy him a drink. If he married an ex-con, some would say he was marrying up.
The first woman out of the gate ran toward an old couple standing as close as the guard would allow. All three hugged and cried. No matter what she’d done, she obviously was still their baby.
The next two walked out together, yelling for Harden to pull the wagon closer and take them home. One of the women winked at Clint as she walked by. “Come on by tonight, honey. I’m offering rides for half price to celebrate.”
Clint stared at their flimsy clothes. They were dressed for work already in ragged lace and see-through silk.
Lightstone filled him in on facts. “The women can wear what they were arrested in home, or the prison gives them one of the dresses they wore in prison. Most have worn that outfit for far too long already, so if they have anything else they change out of prison clothes.”
A middle-aged woman came out in what had to be the uniform she’d worn in prison: a tattered apron over a gray dress with a plain collar. A shawl made with little skill was tied around her shoulders but looked like it would offer no shelter from the rain.
The man with the knife stood and waited as she walked to him. “’Bout time,” was all he said as they turned and walked into the night.
Clint thought if he ever wanted a lower level of melancholy than he had every day, he’d come back and watch this scene again.
The last woman out was tall and dressed in a gray traveling suit that appeared finely tailored, but it was wrinkled. She looked almost a proper lady, but her clothes seemed a few sizes too big and her shoes were dilapidated and scuffed beyond repair. She held a bundle in her arms and another slung over her shoulder.
Clint glanced at a kid by the gate, thinking maybe he was meeting her, but he just shrugged and walked away. She obviously wasn’t someone he was looking for.
The woman raised her head to glance around, but her eyes were dull as if she had little hope. Her hair was too short to pull back and hung down, dark and lifeless, across part of her face. Anyone seeing her would guess she’d been ill. Prison thin. Moonlight pale.
Harden whistled and signaled that she could join him in the wagon, but the thin woman shook her head.
The guard shooed her along. “There’s a hotel down the road that’ll let you sleep there if you give them a day’s work come morning. They don’t take in most of the women who get out of here, but I’m guessing they’ll take you, Miss Karrisa. You tell them Sam said you paid your dues.”
“Thank you,” the woman in gray said, pulling the bundle she carried in her arms closer as if sheltering it from the rain.
Clint found himself staring and wondering what she’d done to end up in prison. She couldn’t be more than twenty-two or twenty-three. Her movements were slow, as if she were testing every step like an old woman on uneven ground. Maybe she’d been hurt or sick, or beaten.
Surely no one beat her on her last day of prison.
The thought turned his stomach.
Lightstone took one step in her direction and she moved away. “Miss,” he said too loud, then lowered his voice. “I’m the sheriff over in Huntsville and will be happy to give you a ride to the little hotel the guard mentioned. You’ll be safe with me, and I promise you’ll be safe there for the night.”
She looked up and Clint saw that she didn’t believe Lightstone. How many people must have lied to her, Clint wondered. Frightened round eyes set into dark circles looked his direction for only a moment.
“I might have a job for you if you’re interested,” the sheriff rushed on. “I could tell you about it and then you could pick which one you wanted: hotel work or my choice.”
Clint saw it then, pure fear so deep she couldn’t speak. He thought he was beyond feeling sorry for anyone but himself, only right now in the moon’s watery glow, he felt sorry for her. She had no one and nowhere to go. If one person had cared whether she lived or died, he would have met her here tonight.
Harden’s wagon rolled past. “You can have her, Sheriff; she’s too thin to satisfy a man. I’d lose money on her keep and that baby will be yelling, waking folks up.”
Clint saw the bundle move and realized what she carried out of the prison: a baby so small it had to be a newborn.
The guard closed the gate but turned to stare through the bars. “If the sheriff says he has a job, he probably does. I’ve never known the man to lie.”
The woman he’d called Karrisa took a step toward Lightstone. “I’d appreciate the ride, Sheriff, but I don’t know about the job.”
Lightstone walked around the wagon while Clint followed the woman. When they reached the side of the wagon he offered to help her up, but she stepped back, out of reach.
As she climbed onto the bench, he again noticed her slow measured movements as if she were in pain.
Without asking, he tugged the bag from her back and tossed it in the wagon.
She raised her thin fingers from the bundle she carried in a slight wave of thanks to the guard. If she’d been mistreated in prison, it hadn’t been by him. The guard looked hard as stone, but he’d shown her a bit of respect.
Clint also nodded at the guard and climbed in the back of the wagon. She stared at him as if she feared he might be a wild animal, then slowly settled on the bench. Without a word, he draped his duster over her shoulders, shielding both her and the baby from the rain.
The ride into town was silent. The hotel would have been a long walk on this dark, rainy night. Clint tried not to stare at her sitting as still as stone next to the sheriff. For the first time since his family died, he thought of someone else. Karrisa.
Maybe she was a murderer, or a bank robber. Women were usually given far more leniency than men, so whatever she did, she must not have served long. Their prison was small and crowded. Some said it was more like a workhouse with guards. Like the men in prisons, the women grew their own food, made their clothes, and took care of stock. If the crop was poor, they ate little. If the crops were good, some was sold off to offset expenses. Life was hard everywhere in Texas, but it must have been near hell in prison.
The hotel, at the edge of town, wasn’t much. It looked like it had been an old stagecoach station and catered to mostly prison visitors or lawmen delivering new inmates or maybe travelers looking for a cheap place to stay. Clint would have passed it by and slept out under a tree, even on a night like this. Putting up with damp ground would be better than fighting bedbugs.
Sheriff Lightstone yelled, “Hello the inn,” as they neared.
An old man stepped to the doorway but didn’t call back a greeting. He had an apron tied around his waist and a shotgun lowered to the side of his leg.
“You got a meal for travelers, innkeeper?”
“We got stew, Sheriff. What you doing this far from your office?”
“Just came to eat your cooking. Hope that wife of yours made pie. Her buttermilk pie is worth the stop even on a night like this. I’ll buy three bowls of soup if you still got it warming.”
The old man moved inside with a nod. Like most folks since the war, they’d learned not to be too friendly.
Clint jumped out of the wagon and offered Miss Karrisa help down, but she didn’t take it.
When she turned to reach for her bundle, he grabbed it first. “I’ll carry it in for you, miss.”
She turned away without arguing, as if the bag were of little value to her.
They moved into a dark cavern of a dining area. Long, poorly made tables ran the center of the room. Clint removed his wet coat from her shoulders, and without a word she sat down close to the fire.
Again Clint couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. How long had it been since she’d stood close to a warm fire or had enough energy to care about anything?
The baby made a little sound and Clint remembered when he’d held his own daughters just after they’d been born. Probably as close to heaven as he’d ever get, he thought. That one moment, that first moment.
No one spoke until the innkeeper rattled into the room with a tray. “This is the last of the stew, Sheriff, so I won’t charge you for it, but the pie will be two bits a slice.”
Clint noticed neither the sheriff nor the lady asked if she could work for her board. Maybe the sheriff wanted to toss out his great idea first or maybe she didn’t want the job. She probably wanted to wait until she heard the sheriff’s offer before deciding.
When the food was spread out, they sat at a little table by the fireplace. Clint wasn’t hungry, but he ate, taking a bite every time she did. Her manners were polished.
“Where you from, miss?” He finally broke the silence.
“Nowhere, really.” She put her spoon down and stopped eating as she rocked the baby.
He didn’t want to ask her any more questions, but he hated that she seemed so tense. Maybe if he talked she’d relax. “I grew up on a farm about thirty miles from here. My folks came in the fifties to homestead. My dad wasn’t much of a farmer, but they survived even after my brother and I went to war. My brother didn’t come back. He died at Shiloh.”
She picked up her spoon as he continued, “I still own the land, but I thought I’d sell it. The soil’s good but the house burned. Farmer next door said he’d buy my place anytime I was willing to sell.”
Lightstone looked at him with a raised eyebrow as if he wanted to add that houses usually do burn when a fire is set in the middle of the parlor.
Clint continued when she took another bite. If she’d eat, he’d talk. “I’m thinking of taking a job up north near the panhandle where the Indian Wars are probably still going on.” He’d tell her of their plan. The sheriff would only frighten her. “They say the weather gets cold enough to snow up there, and the sunsets spread out across flat land for a hundred miles.”
The sheriff kept frowning. He probably wasn’t sure if Clint was trying to talk her into going or out of going. Clint just felt like he had to be honest. If either of them was going to think of stepping off this cliff, they had a right to know what the ground looked like below.
“The sheriff’s got a friend up there who wants to build a town, and he’s making an offer that is hard for a man to turn down. Especially one who has nothing to keep him here. I got no family, miss, they’re all dead. Maybe living on the edge of civilization is where I belong.”
The sheriff finally interrupted Clint’s rant. “You got any family to go to, miss? ’Cause if you do, I’ll put you on the train come morning.”
She set down her spoon again and lowered her head. “None that I’d want to see again or who would welcome me.”
“You got any prospects for work or any money that will tide you over?”
She shook her head, making her straight black hair almost brush her shoulders.
“Well then, I might as well tell you what I’ve been thinking. Clint here ain’t a bad man when he’s sober. He’s thinking of taking that job he told you about; problem is, the man building the town wants married men.”
She looked from the sheriff to Clint, not saying a word. He held her gaze for only a moment, but it was long enough. He couldn’t miss the fear in her eyes. Hell, he was surprised she didn’t run.
He saw that as a good sign. She wasn’t the type of woman he’d ever love, but there was something about her that made him want to take care of her. She had nowhere to go, no money, no one who’d look after her. As thin as she was, she’d probably be dead in a week if she didn’t eat. If she wanted to go with him, he’d see she had food and wasn’t cold. She probably wouldn’t be much company and, if she ran off, he wouldn’t miss a mouse of a woman like her. Maybe the idea of taking her along wasn’t as bad as he feared.
“I’ll let you two talk,” the sheriff said as he stood. “I’ll go find some of that buttermilk pie.”
When the big man was gone, Clint just sat staring at her as she held the newborn close. He had no idea if he was making the right decision. He’d made so many wrong ones lately; maybe it was time to try something different.
“It’s a crazy thing to spring on you, you just getting out of prison and all. If you need time, I’d understand. Until you walked out I was against the idea myself, but knowing you might need this new start as badly as I do got me to thinking that maybe it might be worth a try. I wouldn’t be much help with the babe, but I’d do what I could.”
She didn’t move. She held herself so tight, as if she feared she might fall apart if she relaxed even one inch.
Clint tried again. “I’m a hard worker when I work and, until my family died, I’d never had more than a few drinks.”
He hoped she didn’t glance up and give him that look that said she didn’t believe him.
She remained frozen.
“I’ll be honest. I’ll never love you. I haven’t got any left to give. But, if you’ll go along with me I can promise I’ll always try to be kind. My wife, Mary, used to swear there was a kind side of me, though most folks probably wouldn’t agree.”
Slowly her chin rose. “You’ll never ask me about my past or the baby? I’ll tell you when I’m ready or not at all. That has to be up to me.” Her voice was soft.
“Never, if that’s what you want. Seems fair enough. From this night on, if you come along with me, the baby is ours as far as folks know. No questions.”
“You’ll never hit me?”
“If I do, you have my permission to shoot me.” It crossed his mind that maybe she’d already done that to another. If not being hit was so important to her, maybe she’d killed the last man who tried. Only he wasn’t going to ask. They’d already agreed on that point. Talking about his past was too painful, and learning about hers might keep him up at night.
“You’d never force yourself on me?” Her voice sounded a bit stronger.
“I’m not the kind of man who would do that.” In truth, he hadn’t even thought about the bedding part of the marriage. “We can sleep in separate beds. I’m looking for a wife in name, not in bed.”
She didn’t look convinced, or even interested, but he was coming around to the idea. “If you’ll go with me, miss, I’ll keep you and the babe safe. We may be poor and the work will probably be hard, but I promise you’ll have no call to be afraid. While I breathe, no one will hurt you or the baby.”
She looked up at him then, tears bubbling over. “Then I’ll go with you if you’ll offer one more thing.”
He frowned. He didn’t have much to offer.
She straightened. “Sewn into the folds of my traveling clothes are seeds. You’ll give me enough land to plant a few apple trees if I come. You’ll swear that you’ll never cut a single one of my trees down.”
He smiled. “I’ll do that. You’ll have land enough for an orchard if you want.” Of all the things he thought she might ask for, a spot of land never occurred to him, but if that was her price, he’d pay it gladly.
When the sheriff came back into the hotel’s dining area, he was muttering something about having eaten the last of the pie as he wiped his mouth with his wrinkled bandanna.
Clint Truman slowly stood.
“We’re ready to go, Sheriff. I know a place in town where Karrisa can stay that won’t mind the baby. If you’ll take us there, I’ll get her settled in and ride out to wake up my neighbor. He’ll be happy to know my land will be his as soon as we can do the paperwork.”
Sheriff Lightstone looked surprised. “You two already agreed on everything? That didn’t take long.” He looked at the woman cradling the baby and rocking slightly. “Truman here didn’t talk you into some pie-in-the-sky dream, did he?”
She shook her head. “He said we’d be poor and the work would be hard, but he promised I’d be safe with him.”
The sheriff turned to Clint, but his words were for her. “Some say he’s the best shot they’ve ever seen with a rifle or a handgun. I reckon if he says he’ll keep you safe, he will. If that’s all you want?”
She raised her head, and dull blue eyes as pale as summer clouds showed little sign of caring one way or the other what might happen to her. “That’s all I’ll ever need, Sheriff. I’ll ask for nothing more than he’s offering.”
“Well.” Lightstone shrugged. “I guess being safe is important.”
A thousand words floated unsaid in the air between them. Clint decided if Karrisa wanted to keep her secrets and fears, he’d let her. Digging up memories wouldn’t do either of them any good.
He offered his hand and to his surprise, she took it. He helped her stand, tucking her thin fingers against his elbow as they walked out. When he lifted her into the wagon he couldn’t believe how slender she was. Skin over bones, nothing more.
No one said a word until they got to Quaker House. Martha and James Adams had lived in Huntsville for as long as Clint could remember. They were good people who ran a small boardinghouse for women.
While the sheriff waited with Karrisa, Clint knocked on the door and then explained to Martha that his future wife needed a room.
Martha hadn’t been born with an ounce of curiosity, but the good Lord had doubled her up on kindness. She welcomed the thin woman in and hurried her off to a room.
Clint waited in the parlor until Martha returned. “I’ll pay you for her room when I get back tomorrow, if that’s all right? We’re marrying as soon as possible, then heading north.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Truman. Only don’t come to get her for a few days. That poor dear needs rest.”
He knew all about women birthing babies; he’d helped deliver both his daughters. “How old is the baby?”
“Two days, maybe less. He seems healthy, though small.” She hesitated, then added, “Your woman is still bleeding, Mr. Truman.” Martha whispered her last few words knowing women didn’t talk to men about such things. “If she travels north tomorrow, she won’t make the journey. You’ll pay me for three days and she’ll stay longer if need be. I’ll see she gets the care she should have had the minute the baby was born.”
He nodded. Arguing with Martha would be like disagreeing with a saint. “Tell my future wife that I’ll be by for a visit tomorrow, but it may take a few days to sell the land so she’ll have to stay here. I don’t want her thinking she’s slowing us down.”
Martha seemed to understand. “Come by for supper if you like. You’ll be welcome.”
Clint smiled. “I’ll do that.” It had been a long time since he’d been around kind folks and it felt good. “And I’ll be sober.”
Martha smiled and winked. “I wouldn’t let you in if you weren’t.”
* * *
Clint and Karrisa were married by a judge at the courthouse four mornings later. The sheriff and Martha Adams were the only witnesses. Karrisa wore her same gray traveling dress.
She stood beside her new husband, feeling almost alive for the first time in eight months. She’d taken a long hot bath every morning, as though it took several baths to wash away eight months of being unclean. She’d eaten all meals plus the morning breads and the afternoon tea cakes Martha insisted she have every day.
When Karrisa washed the dried blood and afterbirth off the baby that first night at Quaker House, she’d studied him by candlelight, amazed at how perfect he was. One of the women in the prison helped her deliver, but there had been no clean water for either of them to wash afterward, and Karrisa had been afraid to say anything or the warden might not have let her leave.
What brought the baby to her had all been ugly, but he was wonderful. She thought back about the rape, the murder, her arrest, her time in prison. Someone she’d trusted had attacked her, then lied, and somehow she’d lost everything: her friends, her job, the life she’d had. The baby growing inside her had kept her sane through the dark days in prison. Despite all that had happened, she wanted him, needed him, needed to know that he might be the last piece of her family to live on.
This morning, her wedding day, she’d wrapped his bottom in clean strips of cloth, then put him in one of the little gowns Martha gave her. The man who was now her husband brought a blanket and a basket for the baby that she could carry on her arm. He said he would rig up ropes to hang the basket inside the covered wagon they’d buy so the baby would be rocked to sleep during the last part of their journey.
She looked up at Clint Truman as he signed the marriage license. He was trying to act as if they were just a regular couple getting married. After sitting across the table from him for three nights, she didn’t know if he was a good man or not. She’d lost her compass for such things.
Every night since she’d left prison, she’d curled up in a big rocker and held her baby as he slept. She’d spent hours trying to make sense of what she’d agreed to do. Truman’s offer was her only choice. None of her mother’s family had answered her letters, and she doubted her father would open a letter from her. No friend responded. She’d been totally alone when she’d walked out of prison with fears that she’d be dead of starvation or cold within days, but strangely, Truman treated her as if she’d done him a favor by agreeing to marry him.
Silently she promised she’d be as little trouble to him as possible. Maybe she’d even find a way to help him if he was half the man he seemed to be.
“Are you ready to go, dear?” he asked as he lifted his hat from the rack. The endearment hadn’t flowed easy from his tongue, but she understood he was trying.
“Yes,” she said, bundling up her baby as she watched him shake hands with the sheriff. Truman had a strong jaw and broad shoulders beneath his black coat. There was a hardness about him. The scar crossing from his ear to almost his chin and the deep slash of twisted tissue across his right hand spoke of a violent past.
She had a feeling he didn’t care about anyone in the world. Which might make them a good match because no one in the world cared about her.
When he’d slipped the plain gold band on her finger, she thought of her mother and father. They’d seemed happy when she was growing up, though her mother had always cherished her only child to the point that Karrisa often felt her father was jealous. When her mother died six years ago, something died inside her father as well. It was as if all his love washed away in tears of grief. She’d been sixteen, almost an adult, but he’d sent her to live with his half brother, where she’d learned to make a living in the mills. She’d always thought that she looked too much like her mother for her father to bear.
When she’d hugged her father good-bye, she’d known that she’d never see him alive again. He hadn’t even noticed that she’d bought a fine gray traveling suit, or that she’d sewn seeds into the padding so that she could take her mother’s apple trees with her wherever she went. Her only contact with him over the years had been a hurried note at Christmas to tell her how busy he was.
No one could have guessed how far Karrisa would fall, not even her in her worst nightmare. She’d long ago given up thinking about how her life would have been so different if her mother had lived. Her mother would have never stopped loving her, and her father wouldn’t have known grief so deep that he gave up his daughter.
You’re a grandmother. In her mind, Karrisa whispered to her mother as if she were in the room. You always said that would be a dancing day when it happened. A tear drifted down Karrisa’s face and landed on the baby’s blanket. I’m married, she added, to a good man, I hope.
Don’t think of the past, she reminded herself. Whatever this new road held, it had to be better than prison. Better than New Orleans and living with her half cousins. Better than living in fear.
This strong man before her was promising he would keep her safe, and that meant more to her than anything in the world. She could live without love, but she never wanted to live in total fear again.
Clint cupped her elbow with his long fingers. “It’s time we moved to the train.”
Karrisa blinked away tears, unsure that this marriage wouldn’t be another kind of prison.
“I forgot to say, ‘You may kiss the bride,’” the judge shouted as they walked out of his office.
She froze as her new husband leaned down and kissed her lightly on the cheek.
It wasn’t so bad, she reasoned. The slight kiss was almost polite. If he was polite, then she could handle being married.
“We need to get moving,” the sheriff said. “Train leaves in an hour.”
Clint lifted his suitcase, then glanced at her as if just noticing she had nothing but her bag of ragged clothes. “We’ve time to stop at the general store and pick my wife up a few things she’ll need for the trip. When we get to Dallas I’ll buy a wagon and you can collect what we’ll need to set up housekeeping. The last ten or so days we’ll have to travel by wagon.”
Karrisa nodded. She’d had nothing for so long; anything more than the small broken comb she carried would be a luxury.
When they got to the general store, she was glad the sheriff remained in the wagon, saying he needed a smoke. Truman took the baby in one arm before helping her down. When he handed back her precious bundle, a smile blinked across his stern face for a moment before he turned away.
“Does the boy have a name?” Clint asked as he held the door to the store open for her.
“No,” she answered. “There’s time.”
He nodded, and she realized this hard man, with his claim that he’d never love her, wouldn’t resent her baby. He seemed to accept her child as a part of the bargain, nothing more.
Walking among all the stacks of clothes, she felt overwhelmed. She’d had nothing for so long that all this seemed far too much.
To her surprise, her new husband seemed to understand. “How about we start with a bag?” He pulled a carpetbag from the shelf. “Do you think this one would be big enough?”
She nodded but didn’t reach for it.
He opened the bag and moved to the counter with the clerk following on his heels. “We’ll need a comb, a brush.” Glancing back at her, he added, “And a few combs for her hair.”
The clerk pulled out a card of hair combs and Karrisa pointed at the two cheapest.
Clint frowned but didn’t comment. For a moment they just stood, neither seeming to know what to do or say.
She knew she couldn’t go forever without talking to this man, so she managed, “I’d like to pick out a few underthings and a gown alone.”
“Of course,” he said, and moved to a row of nails holding gun belts and spurs. “If you find a dress you like, you might want to pick it up here. I doubt there will be much selection in the small towns up north, and the train often stops in a town so late the shops are closed.”
When she returned with simple underthings and a gown, he asked about the dress.
“It will be less expensive to buy material and a small sewing box. Then I’ll have something that will fit me.” She’d figured out after looking over the dresses that all would be too wide and too short. She could make two dresses and a few aprons for what one of the store dresses cost.
While the clerk cut material, her husband went back to looking at guns.
Once she returned with material, thread, and a bit of lace, she noticed that he’d picked up lotion and soap.
The clerk put together what he called a train lunch made up of canned peaches, a small loaf of bread, hard-boiled eggs, and cheese. When he started to add it all up, Clint put cookies and a small sack of hard candy atop the pile.
“Is there anything else you need?” he asked without looking at her.
She shook her head as the clerk fitted all they’d bought in the bag. She had no idea how much money Clint carried, but he’d been generous, even adding an extra blanket for the baby.
“There’s room for a few more things,” the clerk said, obviously trying to run up the bill.
Karrisa looked up at the man she’d married, and he nodded once. She turned to the basket at the edge of the counter and picked up two skeins of yarn and a pair of knitting needles.
“That’s good wool, miss,” the clerk said. “Spun by a lady right here in town.”
“It’s Missus. Mrs. Truman,” Clint corrected as he shoved the gun belt and Colt that he’d been looking at across the counter. His words had seemed so cold they froze the room.
The clerk suddenly seemed nervous. “I’m sorry, sir and missus.” He wrapped the gun and belt in brown paper. “Will you be wanting bullets for this?”
“Yes, two boxes,” Clint said as he paid for everything.
He picked up her carpetbag, now completely full, and the brown paper package. He walked out. She had no choice but to follow. The man had asked her to marry him, yet mentioning her being his wife seemed to have made him angry. Maybe he was having as much trouble as she was realizing what they’d done with less thought than they’d put into their purchases.
When he got to the wagon, he put her bag next to his in the back of the wagon and unwrapped the gun belt. While she watched, he strapped the belt on and loaded the Colt.
“How long has it been since you wore a gun, Truman?” the sheriff asked as he watched from the wagon bench.
“Since the war,” Clint answered, but the skill he showed told her that he hadn’t forgotten the feel of a weapon in his hand.
She couldn’t help but wonder if this cold man would hold to his word to be kind.
A rustler’s moon seemed to follow Patrick McAllen and his brother as he moved silently down the shoreline road toward the Spencers’ place.
“Seems as good a night as any to kidnap a bride.” Patrick’s voice carried in the midnight breeze off the gulf.
Shelly, who hadn’t spoken a word since birth, bumped his brother’s knee.
Patrick laughed. “I know it’s not exactly kidnapping when she walks half a mile to meet me, but you can bet Solomon and Brother Spencer will think so. I wouldn’t be surprised if our old man doesn’t come after me and bring half the congregation along to watch. He’ll have murder in his eyes again and a death grip on that bullwhip of his.”
Just enough light shone on Shelly’s face for Patrick to see worry lines forming as his brother’s hands tightened on the reins.
“I’ll make it this time.” Patrick tried to sound as if he believed his words, but the sound of his father’s whip ripping into his back and the smell of his own blood made his voice shake. “I’ll make it or die trying. I swear.”
His brother nodded. Shelly might never speak, but Patrick knew he could read his thoughts. They had until dawn for Patrick to escape and Shelly to make it back to the farm. Solomon McAllen would never know where his youngest son had disappeared to, but by Sunday Patrick had no doubt that Solomon would be telling everyone that his son had gone to the devil.
As they moved slowly, Patrick’s thoughts were racing with plans and full of fears. When he’d applied for a job as carpenter to help build a town way up in West Texas, he knew his father wouldn’t allow him to go. He knew what would happen if he tried to leave home. But this was his one chance to be his own man. To live free from Solomon McAllen’s constant threats and demands to control.
He glanced at his silent brother and wondered if the last time he’d tried to leave was on Shelly’s mind as well.
Patrick had been fifteen when he’d signed on for a cattle drive leaving Galveston. He’d thought it would be a grand adventure and hadn’t listened to his father’s rant. Only, the day the drive pulled out his father found him and dragged him back home. Solomon had strung Patrick up in the barn and almost beat him to death while preaching all the while about how a son should obey his father.
Shelly had been almost seventeen then and tried to stop the beating. Their father had blacked his eye and broken two of his ribs before he yelled for the women to hold the dummy down or he’d kill him.
Shelly had struggled against his four older sisters, but they’d held him until Patrick’s back and legs were raw and Solomon’s youngest son was more dead than alive. After weeks of nursing him back, Patrick’s stepmother had simply said he should have listened. As Solomon’s favorite target, she probably thought she knew best, but from that day to this Patrick had planned his next escape. Now, at twenty, he was making it happen.
Since he’d talked to Spencer’s oldest daughter and she’d agreed to marry him, everything had gone as planned. Shelly and he had loaded the extra wagon with the bare necessities he’d need on the trip and left it in the north pasture until tonight.
Patrick took his bath and laid out his Sunday clothes as he’d done every Saturday night since he could remember. But tonight he’d also packed a grain sack with his other clothes and waited by the window until everyone in the house was asleep.