It might have been the suffocating heat that had Miss Sarah Tamlin thinking of perdition-though of course three days of endless sermons had to be a factor-and how she'd almost certainly wind up there one day, as she pounded out the wheezing refrain of "Shall We Gather at the River" for a sweltering congregation. Seated at an organ hauled into Brother Hickey's big revival tent in the bed of a buckboard, Sarah endured, perspiring, longing to fan herself with her sheet music or brush away the damp tendrils of hair clinging to the sides of her neck.
Every year in August, sure as the hay harvest, Brother Hickey and his roustabouts descended on the community like a circus without animals or parades, erected a canvas sanctuary on the grassy banks of Stone Creek, and set about saving the heathen from certain damnation.
A portion of the congregation seemed to deem it necessary to get saved on an annual basis. There wasn't much to do in a place the size of Stone Creek, after all, and with no doubts about the fate of their immortal souls weighing on their minds, folks would be free to enjoy the picnic that always followed the preaching.
Sarah forced the last few notes of the old hymn through the organ pipes and sighed with relief. The air was heavy and still-a baby gave a brief, fretful squall-and then, remarkably, a breeze swept through the gathering, as soft and cool as the breath of heaven itself.
Startled, Sarah looked up from the cracked and yellowed keys of Brother Hickey's well-traveled organ, over the turned heads of the salvation-seekers, and saw a man standing at the back of the tent. Tall and cleanshaven, with dark hair and eyes, he carried a dusty round-brimmed hat in one hand. His clothes were trail-worn, and the holster riding low on his right hip, gun-slinger fashion, was empty. A grin tilted a corner of his mouth slightly upward.
Brother Hickey, moving behind his portable pulpit, which jolted over country roads and cattle trails right alongside the organ, cleared his throat and opened his Bible. "Have you come to be saved, stranger?" he boomed, employing his preacher voice.
The dark-haired man took a few steps forward. He moved with an easy grace, and for the space of a skipped heartbeat, Sarah wondered if he was some avenging angel, sent to put a stop to the show. "No, sir," he said. "I don't reckon I have." His gaze strayed to Sarah, sitting there in the back of that buckboard, her best calico dress soaked under the armpits. The grin widened to a fleeting smile, as if he somehow knew the stays of her corset were stabbing the underside of her left breast, and all her other secrets, as well. A smile that imprinted itself on some sweet and wholly uncharted place inside her. "That was fine music, ma'am," he told her directly. "I hope there'll be more of it."
Then, affably apologetic for disrupting the proceedings, he sat down next to Marshal Yarbro, who was grinning, and the two of them bumped shoulders.
Brother Hickey lifted his hands heavenward, closed his eyes in earnest and silent prayer, and then slammed a fist down onto the pulpit. Everybody jumped, Sarah noticed, except for the marshal and the stranger sitting beside him.
"Now is the day of Salvation!" Brother Hickey thundered, his copious white whiskers quavering. "Sinners, come forward and be bathed in the Blood of the Lamb!"
Several people rose and approached the makeshift altar, though most of the repenting had been done at previous services. There was dear old Mrs. Elsdon, who'd probably never committed an actual sin, two or three ladies of ill repute from Jolene Bell's saloon, brothel and bathhouse, though Miss Bell herself was noticeably absent, a handful of cowpunchers from Sam O'Ballivan's ranch, mostly likely hoping to speed things along so the picnic could get underway.
If Sarah hadn't been staring at the stranger, she'd have been amused. The revival was in its third and final day, and by now, even the most pious were ready to socialize over fried chicken and apple pie. The children were restless, longing to chase each other under the shady oak trees, wade in the creek, and make noise.
The praying and the saving went on for a long time, but at last Brother Hickey was through gathering in the lost sheep. He signaled Sarah, and she arranged her fingers on the keyboard, tried to put the dark-haired visitor out of her mind, and played a thunderous rendition of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
As soon as she struck the final chord, the benches emptied and the stampede began.
Sarah sat still on the hard stool in front of the organ, almost faint with relief, her eyes closed. It was over for another year. As soon as everyone had left the tent, she would climb down from the bed of the wagon, slip out the back way, and make her way home. She kept a jar of tea cooling in the springhouse, and when she'd drunk her fill, she'd strip, stuff her corset into the stove, and take a sponge bath.
"Miss? It is 'Miss,' isn't it?"
Sarah opened her eyes, saw the stranger standing right beside the buckboard, looking up at her. Again, she felt it, a peculiar jolting sensation that brought a blush to her cheeks, as though he'd read her thoughts and even imagined her shut away in her bedroom, naked, sluicing her flesh with water from a basin. She resisted a humiliating urge to smooth her hair, sit up straighter. "Yes," she said stiffly.
"Wyatt Yarbro," the man said, putting out a hand.
Sarah hesitated, then took it, though tentatively. His fingers were strong, calloused, and cool as the breeze he'd blown in on. "Sarah Tamlin," she allowed, feeling foolish and much younger than her twenty-seven years.
"Would you like some help getting down from there?"
Short of lifting her skirts and leaping to the sawdust floor, as she would normally have done, Sarah had no graceful options. "All right," she replied shyly. Then she climbed into the buckboard seat, careful not to let her ankles show, and Wyatt Yarbro put his hands on her waist and lifted her down. She stood looking up at him, stunned by the effect of his touch. Light-headed, she swayed slightly, and he steadied her.
His eyes were a deep brown, and they glinted with mischief and something else, too-some private, deep-seated sorrow. "I reckon it would be a sight cooler outside, under those oak trees alongside the creek," he said.
Sarah merely nodded. Let herself be escorted out of the revival tent on Mr. Yarbro's arm, in front of God and everybody.
Rowdy approached as Wyatt reclaimed his pistol from the table set aside for the purpose, his old yellow dog, Pardner, at his heels, and tipped his hat to Sarah.
"I didn't see Mrs. Yarbro in the congregation," Sarah said. She liked Lark, a former schoolteacher who'd stirred up quite a scandal when she took up with the marshal.
"The baby's getting teeth, and it makes him fractious," Rowdy replied. "They'll be along later, when the heat lets up." He turned slightly, gave Wyatt an affectionate slap on the shoulder. "I'd introduce my brother properly," he added, "but it seems you've already made his acquaintance."
"I'm the good-looking one," Wyatt said.
Just then, Fiona Harvey showed up, holding a plate piled high with fried chicken, potato salad and apple crumble. Fiona, who was thirty if she was a day, wanted a husband. Everybody knew that.
When and if Fiona managed to get married, Sarah would become the town spinster.
"You look hungry," Fiona told Wyatt, batting her sparse eyelashes.
Sarah, who considered Fiona a friend, simmered behind a cordial smile.
Wyatt tipped his head and flashed a grin at Fiona. "Why, thank you, ma'am," he said, accepting the plate.
Rowdy rolled his eyes, caught the expression on Sarah's face, and winked at her.
"You're welcome to come and sit with us," Fiona simpered, indicating a cluster of women sitting on a blanket under a nearby tree.
The marshal took the plate from Wyatt's hands and gave it back to Fiona. "My brother's much obliged," he said smoothly, "but we've been expecting him, so Lark's got a big spread on the table at home."
"Thanks just the same, though," Wyatt said.
Fiona took the rebuff gracefully, said she hoped Mr. Yarbro would come back for the fireworks and the dance that would take up after sunset, and he replied that he might well do that. With a sidelong glance at Sarah, he allowed as how he enjoyed fireworks.
She blushed again, oddly flustered.
And Fiona pressed the plate into her hands. "Take this to your papa," she told Sarah. "Heaven knows, he'll appreciate a decent supper, the way you cook."
"Why, thank you, Fiona," Sarah said.
Wyatt and Rowdy exchanged glances, and one of them chuckled.
Fiona smiled and walked away.
"Give my regards to your father," Rowdy said, as Sarah turned to go, once again at a loss for words. The next time she saw Fiona, she'd have plenty to say, though.
"I'd better see Miss Tamlin home," Wyatt said, and before Rowdy could protest that Lark had dinner waiting, he'd taken Sarah's arm and escorted her halfway to the road.
Since it would be rude to tell him she could get home just fine on her own, Sarah bit her lip and marched along, resigned, carrying the plate like a crown on a velvet cushion.
An old spotted horse with a long cut on its side ambled along behind them, bridle jingling, reins wrapped loosely around the saddle horn.
Sarah looked back.
"That's just Reb," Wyatt said.
"What happened to his side?"
"He had a run-in with a steer a while back. He's healing up fine, though."
Sarah wanted to ask a thousand other questions, but all of them jammed up in the back of her throat. She was sweating, her hair felt as though it would escape its pins at any moment, and she could almost feel the flames of Brother Hickey's beloved hellfire licking at her hem.
Mr. Yarbro donned his dusty hat, which made him look like a highwayman out of some dime novel. Sarah was painfully conscious of his hand, cupping her elbow, and the way he moved, with a sort of easy prowl.
"Are you really a bad cook?" he asked, visibly restraining a grin.
"Yes," Sarah admitted, with a heavy sigh.
He chuckled. "Guess that's why you're not taken," he said. "No other explanation for it, with looks like yours."
Sarah was scandalously pleased, and determined to hide the fact. She didn't think about her appearance much, given the busy life she led and her naturally practical turn of mind, but she knew she was
passable. Her hair was dark, and she kept it shiny with rainwater shampoos, vinegar rinses and a hundred brushstrokes every night. She had good skin, strong teeth, exceedingly blue eyes and a slender but womanly figure.
For all that, she was an old maid, too plainspoken and too smart to suit most men. Most likely, Mr. Yar-bro was merely dallying with her.
"My looks are in no way remarkable, Mr. Yarbro," she said, "and we both know it." She paused. Then, ever the banker's daughter, started adding things up in her brain. "Are you an outlaw, like your brother was?" she inquired bluntly.
"I used to be," he said, surprising her.
She'd expected another answer, she realized. A lie, falling easily from those expressive lips of his. Faced with the stark truth, she didn't know what to say.
Wyatt laughed and resettled his hat.
"What did you do?" Sarah asked, once she'd found her voice. They'd entered Stone Creek proper by then, passing Rowdy's office first, strolling along the sidewalk past the mercantile and her father's bank. The sun was setting, and old Mr. Shaefer was lighting the gas streetlamps, one by one.
"Robbed a train or two," Wyatt said.
"My goodness," Sarah remarked.
"You're safe with me, Miss Tamlin," he assured her, grinning again. "I've seen the error of my ways and I'm determined to take the high road, like my brother did. Are you planning to head back to the creek for the dancing and the fireworks?"
Sarah shook her head, bemused.
"Then I reckon I won't bother to, either."
So he hadn't been taken with Fiona, then. Inwardly, Sarah gave a deep sigh.
All too soon, and not nearly soon enough, they'd reached the gate in front of Sarah's house.
He opened the gate for her, stood back politely while she passed through it. When she looked over her shoulder, he touched the brim of his hat.
"Good night, Sarah Tamlin," he said. The glow of a nearby streetlamp cast his fine features into shadow. The paint horse waited politely on the sidewalk, nibbling at the leaves of Sarah's favorite peony bush.
Sarah swallowed, rattled again. "Good night, Mr. Yarbro," she replied. Then she turned and hurried along the walk, up the porch steps, into the house. When she pulled aside a lace curtain to peer out, the train robber was gone, and so was his horse.
Wyatt ate two plates full of supper, admired Lark, who was pretty, made the acquaintance of the other younger brother, Gideon, he'd nearly forgotten he had, and dandled the baby on his knee for a while. The little kid was cute, if a mite fractious in temperament. His name was Hank, and he looked just like Rowdy.
The big kid, Gideon, gave Wyatt a suspicious onceover and took off for the festivities down by the creek. It was full dark by then, and fireworks spread like chrysanthemums against the sky. Wyatt, Rowdy and the baby sat on the porch steps in front of Rowdy's small house, conveniently located in back of the jail, listening to the crickets, the sound of distant merriment, and the tinny tune of some saloon piano. Lark was inside, doing the things women did after they'd served a meal.
"You've done well for yourself, Rob," Wyatt said quietly, using his brother's given name. "A fine woman, a steady job, a son. I envy you a little."
Rowdy leaned back on the porch step, resting on his elbows. Silvery light from the fireworks caught in his fair hair. "No reason you can't have the same," he said.
"No reason except two years in a Texas prison," Wyatt replied. He'd told Sarah straight out that he'd robbed trains, but he hadn't mentioned the stretch behind bars. With a woman, a little honesty went a long way.
"Everybody's done things they're not proud of, Wyatt." Rowdy shifted, looked reluctant. "About
"What about her?" Wyatt asked, too quickly.
Rowdy considered a little longer before answering. "She works in her father's bank," he said. "Every cow-poke between here and Tucson has tried to court her, but she's having none of it. I think she's one of those- well-career women."