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Hank knows all about losing family. And he slowly sets about restoring Amelia's shaky faith. But doing what's right might mean breaking her heart and his own.
An overly long dry spell baked the plains and prairies of Texas until the land was grit dry as coarse sand. Unseasonably hot, incessant winds whipped the hems of ladies' skirts, sent men's hats skittering along the boardwalk, picked up the dry earth and sent it billowing down Main Street.
As Amelia Hawthorne made her way down the boardwalk fronting the two blocks of shops and stores, she clamped her left hand atop her battered straw hat, squinted and blinked in an attempt to keep the dust out of her eyes. The wind had torn her braid apart by the time she reached her destination, the First Bank of Glory.
Any other woman would have scurried for cover but Amelia had never acquired the habit of worrying about her looks. She wasn't like some of her neighbors who lingered over the new E. Butterick & Co.'s catalogue at Harrison Barker's Mercantile and Dry Goods Store or waited breathlessly for every shipment of buttons, ribbons and yard goods. She hadn't the money nor the inclination to keep up with current fashion. Serviceable dresses of sturdy fabrics that lasted for years were good enough for her.
She'd worn her long russet hair in the same simple style all her life—pulled back and woven into a single thick braid that trailed to her waist. Her daddy always told her she was pretty, though not as beautiful as her mother. She took him at his word.
She decided that if a man ever took a shine to her again, he would have to like her just the way she was— a sensible, hardworking, God-fearing woman who'd been put on this earth to care more for others than she did her looks.
Now, as Amelia clung to her straw hat with one hand, she clutched a carefully wrapped paper packet of dried arnica blossoms in the other.
Despite the turn in the weather, she was intent upon delivering the packet to Mary Margaret Cutter in hopes that a strong dose of arnica tea would ease the woman's painful arthritis. Mrs. Cutter and her husband, Timothy, had founded the Bank of Glory shortly after the war and still worked there together every day.
Seen through the thick haze of dust, the handful of other folks on the street appeared as little more than blurred silhouettes. Amelia thought she could make out two tall men in wide-brimmed hats heading in her direction, but couldn't be sure. She reached the bank and fumbled for the door handle just as another strong gust hit her.
Eyes watering from the sifting grit, she cracked open one of the double doors, reeled into the bank and slammed into a man's chest.
She felt the scratch of wool against her cheek and heard him utter "Oof!" before she ricocheted back. Off balance, she tilted sideways. The next thing she knew, she was on the floor, eye level with the knees of a man's brown tweed trousers. She watched those knees bend as the man hunkered down beside her.
"I'm so sorry! Let me help you up, ma'am." His voice was deep and calm and instantly struck an unfamiliar chord in her. How, she wondered, could sound alone warm her from head to toe?
Amelia righted herself to a sitting position and realized her hat was missing. Her hand flew to her hair, which at this point surely resembled a rat's nest.
"Are you all right, dear?" Mary Margaret called from behind her teller's window.
Amelia's vision had cleared enough to reveal that she'd not only dropped the precious packet, but the dried petals were scattered over the wooden floor of the bank.
"Oh, no!" She rolled to her knees. With her legs tangled in the folds of her skirt, she could barely move but made a valiant attempt to crawl around and brush the arnica into a pile.
At least the man had the presence of mind to shut the door, which kept the dried flowers from scattering farther.
"You all right, Amelia?" Mary Margaret called again.
Amelia glanced up at Mary Margaret's familiar face. In her late sixties, the woman had plump, rosy cheeks and a wreath of white curly hair gathered into a topknot. She reminded Amelia of a mischievous cherub.
"No harm done. I'll be right as rain as soon as I get this gathered up." Amelia frowned over her task. She knew how much trouble Mary Margaret's arthritic hands gave her and wanted to make sure the woman had at least a portion of her waning supply.
Movement caught the corner of her eye and Amelia realized the man who'd unwittingly caused the upset was on his knees beside her. His hands were large. His long, tapered fingers appeared to be stained with indigo ink. Just now those big hands were awkwardly cupping and brushing bits of arnica across the floorboards toward her.
Sneaking a glance at his face, she saw it was closely shaven. He had a rugged jaw, full lips and straight dark eyebrows. He was studiously intent on his task. His shoulders bunched beneath a suit jacket that appeared confining on such a big man. Beneath it peeked the brass buttons of a matching vest.
The newness of his clothes and the jaunty bowler atop his head confirmed he was a gent. Either he was a new emigrant from the East, or a traveler just passing through.
They were side by side on all fours. The pile of arnica had grown to a palmful. Amelia was fumbling with the paper packet, when the front door burst open and the fragile dried bits went swirling in all directions again. Heavy boot heels pounded across the threshold. Spurs clinked against the floorboards behind her.
Then a man shouted,"Hands in the air! This is a holdup!"
Amelia swung her head around and peered over her shoulder. A lanky man with a blue bandanna wrapped around the lower half of his face waved a gun as he charged farther into the room.
A half-second later he tripped over the gent in the tweed suit and bowler hat and hit the floor beside her. The robber's gun, much too close to her now, went off. As the shot reverberated, echoing in the small room, the acrid smell of gun smoke filled her lungs. Though her ears were ringing, she still heard the high-pitched ping as the ricocheting bullet hit something metal.
Mary Margaret squealed and a loud thud followed. Amelia covered her head with her arms. The man in the tweed suit lunged for the robber and they began to wrestle around like two pigs in mud, rolling back and forth across the floor.
Still on all fours, Amelia scrambled toward the open door. Through a fog of whirling sand, she thought she glimpsed a second male figure with a gun, hovering just outside the open door. Amelia caught her breath. The second man was leaner, but just as tall as the robber inside.
There was something haunting in the second man's stance, something in the way his hands dangled loosely at his sides that seemed familiar. Amelia held her breath, refusing to admit she might know his identity. It was too unthinkable.
She blinked and rubbed her eyes. When she looked up again, the second man—if he'd been there at all—had disappeared. After crawling across the floor, she slammed the door. Afterward, she realized she'd just shut them all inside with a gunman.
The bank was deathly silent. Crouched on the floor, she slowly turned, ready to dash toward the swinging half door and take refuge behind the low teller wall built to separate Mary Margaret and a cast-iron, black standing safe from the front half of the room.
She discovered, thankfully, there was no need to scramble anywhere. The gent with ink-stained hands had somehow wrestled the robber into submission. The villain was facedown on the floor with the man in tweed straddling him. With a death grip on the outlaw's wrists, the gent yanked the bandit's arms behind his back.
"Somebody get a rope!" the gent shouted. His bowler hat was missing.
"You can't hang him without a trial!" Amelia cried.
The man in tweed looked over his shoulder at her as if she'd taken leave of her senses. "I'm not going to hang him. I'm going to tie him up."
"Oh." Her face flamed, but her embarrassment quickly faded when a weak, pitiful moan issued from behind the teller's window.
Amelia was on her feet in an instant. She ran around the low wall and found the woman sprawled on the floor. Blood seeped from a head wound near her temple.
A calmness took over as Amelia gathered the folds of her own serge skirt and pressed the hem against the older woman's head.
"Mr. Cutter?" She shouted loudly enough to raise the dead, hoping Mary Margaret's husband would hear her. "Mr. Cutter, are you in there?"
Timothy Cutter, seventy if he was a day, slowly opened the door to his office and peered around the edge. He squinted at her like a prairie dog just burrowing out of its hole into blinding sunlight.
"Amelia? Amelia, what's going on? I thought I heard a gunshot."
"You did, Mr. Cutter." That in itself was a small miracle. Timothy Cutter was nearly deaf as a post. "Mary Margaret is hurt. I need some towels and hot water."
"I need a blasted rope!" The gent hollered from the other side of the wall.
"Who's that? Who needs a goat at a time like this?" Mr. Cutter's eyes were magnified to a startling roundness behind his thick glasses.
"Not a goat," Amelia yelled back. "He needs a rope. There's a man out here who's captured a bank robber."
She glanced down at Mary Margaret. The woman's eyes fluttered open. She stared at Amelia in confusion before she let out a weak moan and fainted again.
Amelia gingerly dabbed at Mrs. Cutter's temple and then tore off her own skirt hem for a bandage. The wound was merely a graze. It was nothing compared to the injuries she'd seen after her father had volunteered his services during the war.
Esra Hawthorne felt it was his duty to treat men no matter what side they fought for. Believing she had a natural talent for medicine, Doc Hawthorne thought nothing of teaching a fourteen-year-old to assist him in surgery as he struggled to put the battlefield-wounded back together again.
She had seen far worse than Mrs. Cutter's scratch, but the near miss was still nerve shattering. A fraction of an inch to the right and Mary Margaret would have been dead. As Amelia continued to press the hem of her skirt against the cut, she primly folded her legs beneath her.
This, she decided, would take a while.
"Mr. Cutter," she shouted, "go next door and get Harrison Barker over at the mercantile."
Timothy blinked and nodded. The door closed again and he disappeared.
"Is she dead?" the gent inquired from the other side of the teller wall.
"Just grazed," Amelia informed him. "The bullet scraped her temple."
"You think he went for help? Is there a back door?"
"Yes," she answered to both questions. "At least I hope so."
She heard a moment of rough-and-tumble thumping, scrabbling and grunting on the other side of the divide and held her breath, hoping the robber wasn't going to break free. Suddenly, there was a soft thud very like that of a ripe melon hitting the floor, followed by a low groan.
She was afraid to ask what was happening and wished she'd picked up the robber's gun. Then the gent called, "It's all right. He's out for now."
Amelia whispered a prayer of thanks. Despite the near tragedy, the man in tweed had kept his wits about him. The Lord had given her the strength to keep her head, too. Now, if she could just forget about maybe seeing a second man outside, she'd feel much better.
"Mister? Who are you?" she asked the gent as she dabbed blood and checked Mary Margaret's wound. The bleeding had slowed to a trickle.
Before he could answer, the front door burst open. Shouts, animated voices and footsteps echoed around the room. It sounded as if everyone in Glory was filing into the bank.
As it was, just about everyone who had been in the mercantile next door rushed in first. Within seconds, nearly every shop and business in Glory emptied as word of the attempted robbery spread.
The first person Amelia saw peer over the teller wall was Reverend Brand McCormick. He and his sister, Charity, had arrived with the first wave of curiosity seekers. Charity volunteered to care for Mary Margaret.
Before she knew it, Amelia became the center of attention along with the man in tweed. They were jostled and prodded until they ended up shoulder to shoulder, surrounded by the curious and concerned.
Amelia blew a long strand of hair out of her eyes and wished she'd at least taken time to secure her braid and change from her oldest gardening skirt before she'd left home. She never imagined the simple task would land her smack in the middle of a crowd.
She clutched her fingers together to hide the garden dirt under her nails. Mary Margaret's blood stained her skirt.
"What happened, Amelia?" Harrison Barker, owner of the mercantile and dry goods store, wanted to know. A pall of silence fell over the crowd.
"I came in to deliver some dried arnica to Mrs. Cutter and I—" She glanced over at the man in tweed. "I tripped and then this gentleman " She paused to let him supply his name.
"Hank Larson." He spoke in that warm, confident way again. "I'm new in town. I was here to see about a loan when—"
"He bumped into me," she concluded.
"Actually, I knocked her down. Accidentally. For which I apologize—"
"And we were both scraping up arnica when—"
The preacher interrupted. "How did you manage to apprehend the robber?" he asked Mr. Larson.
The man's face colored. He shrugged his wide shoulders.
"I don't know, exactly. I didn't stop to think about it. Somehow I managed to overpower him and just hung on."
Two cowpokes had the robber trussed up like a steer ready to be branded. A rope bound his heels, and his wrists were tied together behind his back.
Hank Larson glanced around the room. "Where's the sheriff?"
"Sheriff?" Harrison Barker laughed as did others around the room. "We haven't had a sheriff in this town since before the war."
"No, sir. Never needed one. The army's been stationed in and out of here 'cause of the Comanche raids, so we never needed an official sheriff. Who'da thought this would happen?" Harrison gazed around as realization hit him. "Why, Mary Margaret coulda been kilt."
"Or worse," someone muttered. A somber hush fell over the crowd.
"Who's going to arrest and hold this man? Don't you have a mayor, either?" Hank Larson's brow knitted as he stared at the faces in the crowd.
Amelia noticed a quickly purpling spot on his left cheekbone beneath his eye and a small cut there, as well.
"Closest thing we've got to a mayor is the preacher. We haven't had a mayor since old Emmert Harroway, the town founder, kicked the bucket," Harrison said.
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