Read an Excerpt
Angel Falls, Montana Territory July 1884
"Thank you, Mrs. Olaff." Lila Lawson closed the cash drawer. "Please come again."
"Of course I will. How can I resist? You have such a pretty display of summer fabrics." The kindly elderly woman hugged her brown-paper-wrapped package. "Once I sew this up, I am coming back for that beautiful lawn. You promise not to sell it all until then?"
"My word of honor." She intended to snip fifteen yards of the delicate fawn-colored material off its bolt and hold it beneath the counter. It was her prerogative as the shopkeeper's daughter and it was the least she could do for Mrs. Olaff, who was a loyal, longtime customer.
The front door swung shut with a jingle of the bell hanging over the doorway and she was alone in the mercantile full of pleasantly displayed merchandise. Again.
She glanced out at the street. Why couldn't life be more like a dime novel? On the other side of the perfectly spotless windowsshe had cleaned them to a shine this morninga parade of people, horses and wagons, fancy buggies and humble, handmade carts hurried by. Everyone was going somewhere, doing something and it seemed as if the merry sunshine called her name. The whole world was out there and excitement could be waiting around every corner.
She retraced her steps to the fabric counter at the far end of the store, the tap of her shoes echoing against the high ceiling. The sharp briny scent of the pickle barrel seemed to follow her as she circled around the edge of the counter. Her skirts swished and rustled in the silence.
How about a little excitement, Lord, please? Just a little diversion, something to break the monotony.
She picked up her pen, dunked the tip into the ink bottle and resumed her letter to one of her best friends, Meredith, now a teacher at a small summer school north of town.
Dull. That's my life in a single word. Ever since we graduated not a single exciting thing has happened. Lorenzo Davis hasn't stepped foot inside the store. I would even welcome a visit from Luken Pawel to break the monotony. But everyone from school is busy with new jobs like you, or on their family farms like Earlee and Ruby. I miss you all. Not only that, I'm bored. Did I mention it?
Lila chuckled to herself, imagining Meredith would do the same when she read the letterif she wasn't completely bored by its dull contents. Not that Lila didn't appreciate her blessings, because she thanked the Lord every day for them.
She had a comfortable life, a wonderful father, a sister she loved and friends she cherished. Plus, all the fabric she could want to sew. The bolts surrounded her in dignified rows of blacks, browns and grays, cheerful calicos and lively ginghams. Being around the fabrics perked her up, the bright spot in a long day's shift of standing on her feet.
"Lila!" a discontented woman's voice called from the door behind the long front counter.
That would be her stepmother.
"Don't tell me you are standing around again?" Eunice Lawson pounded into the doorway, her round face pursed with annoyance. "Can't I take one afternoon off to have tea with my friends without the store falling apart?"
"No, what?" Eunice waited, sour disapproval wafting through the air to compete with the pickle brine.
"No, Ma." The single word was like an arrow to her heart. Her mother had died when she was fourteen and having to call the woman her pa had remarried by the same designation hurt in more ways than one.
"Be a good girl and be helpful. I left a list to keep you busy all afternoon." Eunice tossed what she probably thought was an encouraging smile before storming out of sight.
Oh, joy. Why couldn't she be allowed to sit quietly and sew during the quiet moments in the store, as Eunice did or the hired lady who came on Saturdays? Lila blew out a sigh, listened to her stepmother's footsteps knell up into the second story and went in search of the list. She found it tacked on the wall behind the cash drawer and frowned at the first item.
Move pickled herring barrel and scrub floor beneath.
At least that would break the monotony. She tapped over to the little supply closet and gathered the essentials she would need.
This wasn't the excitement I was hoping for, Lord. How did the saying go? Be careful what you pray for. Amused, she dumped water from the pitcher into the bottom of a pail. It wasn't as if she had been terribly careful or specific in her prayer, had she? So she didn't intend to complain about the outcome. She grabbed a bar of soap from the closet shelf and made a beeline for the fish barrels.
Try to love your work, Lila, she told herself. Some days she did. Other days, not as much. She set down the bucket and put her shoulder into the first barrel, took a deep breath, tried not to breathe in the fishy smell and gave it a shove. Why couldn't her life be more like a book? She feared her life might always be placid and humdrum, the way it was today. Since she had already read every volume in last month's shipment of dime novels she was out of reading material and her thirst for adventure went unsatisfied.
As she grabbed the mop, a loud, shocking series of rapid pops erupted from the street, noisy enough to echo in the store. The smooth wooden handle tumbled from her hands and the mop hit the floor with a whack.
Was that gunfire? She whirled toward the window where the orderly pace of the afternoon had turned into a frantic blur. Horses reared, women ran into the nearest shops and buggies sped by, all heading away from the center of town. Cries rang out as another series of bullets fired.
What was going on? She found herself being drawn toward the door. Angel Falls was a quiet town full of honest and hardworking folk and very little trouble, until recently. Last summer, a train had been robbed just east of town and only one of the men responsible, Finn Mc-Kaslin, had been caught. Crime had grown since. She had heard of a few reticule snatchings, several horse thefts and two shops had been broken into. But gunfire had never rang on the streets before.
Was it coming from the bank? She opened the door and poked her head out just enough to see down the empty boardwalk. Many blocks away saddled horses ringed the front door of the bank while two men stood guard with Winchesters at the ready.
A bank robbery! Panic licked through her, shaking her from head to toe. Shots fired again from the bank. Were the people inside afraid? Hurt? She thought of Meredith's father who owned the bank and she gripped the edge of the door for support. Watch over them, Father. Please keep everyone safe.
The institution's ornate front doors swung open and a handful of men dashed out, their faces covered with bandanas, rifles clutched in hand. There was something menacing, defiant and cruel about them as they mounted up and gazed around the empty streets. She gulped hard, watching a very tall, very thin man hop onto his jet-black horse.
A sensible young lady would look away. A smart young lady would duck for cover, but this was better than any dime novel. Riveted, she watched as the bank door burst open and a man dashed out, rifle raised. He got one shot off before fire erupted. He fell on the steps and didn't move.
Her jaw dropped. Her heart stopped beating. Was he dead? Her knees gave out and she clung harder to the door, rattling the overhead bell. Lord, let him be all right. The outlaws didn't care. They beat their horses with the ends of their reins, shouting harshly. The animals bolted, galloping full-out down the street. They were coming her way!
Danger. She slammed the door shut. Her limbs felt like pulled taffy as she clamored behind the solid wood counter. She gripped the wooden edge with clammy fingers, her knees buckling. Horse hooves drummed closer, the beat of steeled shoes against the ground rattled the windowsills. Men shouted, guns fired, glass tinkled and something zinged to a stop in the counter in front of her.
A bullet? As her knees gave out completely and she sank down onto her heels safely behind the counter, she caught one last glimpse of the robbers speeding past, spurs glinting in the sunshine. A bank robbery wasn't the kind of excitement she had wanted. She swiped at her damp bangs with one shaky hand. Somehow she was sitting on the floor. It was not exactly the way a heroine in a dime novel would handle danger.
The door rattled open and a bell chimed. No other sound blew in on the still air. Not a single clomp of a horse's hoof, not a drum of shoes on the boardwalk. It was as if the entire town was holding its breath, afraid the outlaws would return, afraid it was not safe. Her pulse hammered like war drums. Was anyone there? Or had she not shut the door properly and it blew open?
She took in a deep breath, willed the trembling from her knees and pushed upright. Still a little wobbly, but she was not afraid. This was her first taste of adventure. Surely if there was ever a next time she would do better. She had grown up protected and sheltered and for that she was grateful, but she liked to think she had a courageous spirit. She smoothed her skirts and studied the store. The door stood open. No one was there. Right away she noticed the odd distortion in one of the glass panes. There was a little round hole just like a bullet would make.
A bullet. Her heartbeat skipped again. She skirted the counter to take a better look and she saw a man sprawled on his back on the floor in front of the open door with a blood stain blossoming on his white muslin shirt.
"M-miss?" he croaked in a baritone that sounded as if he were out of breath, as if he were a heavy smoker. The tin badge on his chest glinted as it caught a ray of sunshine. "You wouldn't happen to carry bandages, would you? I would like to buy a few."
"A few?" He was joking, right? What he needed was medical attention. She lifted the hem of her skirts and dashed to his side, heart pounding, knees shaking, her breath rattling between her ribs. Blood spread across his snowy shirt like a bottle of ink spilling. She knelt down and she reached to help him, but what did she do? She'd never seen an injury like this before. "You are going to need a great deal more than a couple bandages."
"I'm being optimistic," he panted between winces of pain.
Optimistic? He looked as though he was he going to die. The hard planked floor bit into her knees as she bounded into action. His rugged face turned ashen. He looked familiar. "You're the new deputy."
"Guilty." He wheezed in another sputtering bite of air. Muscles worked in his impressively square jaw, the sort of jaw a hero in a book might have. Dark brown, almost unruly hair framed a face so rugged and handsome it could have been carved out of stone. "Burke Hannigan. You're Lawson's oldest daughter."
"Yes, I'm Lila. You look a bit worse for the wear, Deputy Hannigan." From a shelf she snatched a stack of soft flannel squares, cut for baby diapers, and retraced her steps. "It looks as if you ran into a bullet out on the street."
"I've done worse and lived."
"You shouldn't be so cavalier. Look how fast you're bleeding." The crimson stain had grown larger and brighter, taking over his entire shirtfront. Her hands trembled as she plucked a piece of material from the stack and folded it into fourths. "It was brave of you to try and stop the bank robbers."
"But I didn't succeed. I couldn't run fast enough." He gritted his teeth, obviously as pained by that as by his wound.
His chest wound, she realized as she laid the cloth directly above the obvious bullet hole in his shirt. "Better luck next time."
"I didn't know a woman like you believed in luck." He winced when she applied pressure.
"It's just an expression, as I'm not sure you are the kind of man God would help." Maybe this wasn't the time for humor, but the wounded deputy laughed, sputtering with each deep rumble and, horribly, she felt the warm surge of blood against her palm intensify. "Perhaps you should lie back and stay quiet."
"If I wanted a woman to tell me what to do, I would have married one." He reached for a second piece of cloth and folded it, his bloodied fingers leaving marks on the flannel. Sweat broke out on his forehead at the effort. His chiseled mouth tugged down in the corners, making his hard face appear almost harsh, but his deep blue eyes radiated thankfulness and a depth of feeling that only a man with real heart could give. "I just need to catch my breath, and then I can go."
"You aren't going anywhere, Deputy." He definitely could have stepped off the pages of one of her beloved novels. The alpha hero, rugged and brave, tough enough to take a bullet to the chest and still want to right wrongs and capture villains. Very hard not to like that. "I'm going to fetch the doctor."
"I don't need a doctor." He clenched his teeth. A tendon jumped along his jawline. He was hard muscle and solid bone beneath the flat of her hand. His heart beat oddly fast and heavily, as if something were indeed wrong. He gasped in a breath, stuck the cloth on his other side and applied pressure.
He'd been hit by two bullets? Maybe she was a little in shock, too, since she hadn't noticed. When she plucked another cloth off the stack and added it to the one beneath her palm, her hand was coated red.
"You must have real bandages in this store" He stopped to pant and wheeze. More blood oozed between her fingers. He wrestled with each breath. "Fetch them. I can patch. Myself. Up."
"Even most men would have enough common sense to lie in the street where they fell." She added another cloth to the pile. Light chestnut wisps fell down from her braided cornet to frame her face. "You are going nowhere, Deputy."
"We shall. See about that." He gasped. If his head would stop spinning, he would be all right. It was probably from the blood loss. That was easy to fix with a bandage. "I just need to catch. My. Breath."
"That looks like it might take you a while." She pressed him down by the shoulder until he was flat on the floor again. "To do so would be at your great peril, and I am not going to let anything happen to you. You collapsed on my shift and that makes me responsible for you."
"I had to get a bossy store clerk." He considered it a good sign that he could quip. "I can't lay here."