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Maple Creek, Kansas1890
Tears dripped to the dust beneath her feet. Small bare feet, hardly visible beneath a voluminous gray dress that clad the girl's body in an anonymous fashion. She held her hands against her cheeks, silently shielding her features from the man who seemed determined to strike her face.
His closed fist hit the side of her head, spittle flying from his mouth as he swore, harsh words that questioned her heritage, phrases that condemned her lifestyle. She fell to the ground, curling into a tight ball to shield herself against his wrath.
The rifle behind Simon's saddle had seen but little use, being carried only for his own protection as he traveled the byways of his parish, but he knew its use, and the feel of the stock in his hands was immediate as he aimed carefully at the heavyset, angry man before him. The bullet hit him, sent him spinning, and he swore ripely as he fell to the ground. Bleeding from his shoulder, he lifted his head and his cold, angry gaze touched Simon, who held his long gun ready, should he need to fire it again. The big man on the ground struggled to his feet, snatched up his hat and awkwardly gained the saddle on his mount. Within seconds he was almost lost in a cloud of dust from the dry, arid pasture that surrounded him.
Simon lifted himself quickly from his gelding and dropped the reins, knowing his horse would not stray. The girl crouched before him at the side of the road, her head bent and resting against her knees, her shoulders shuddering with the sobs she could not contain and a cloud of dark hair all but covering her face.
He dropped to one knee beside her, and his hand touched her shoulder, feeling the automatic flinch his gesture brought into being. "I won't hurt you," Simon said, his tone as gentle as he could manage, given the degree of anger he felt toward her attacker.
She lifted her head, one blue eye almost closed from the swollen flesh surrounding it. Copious amounts of crimson fell from the torn flesh of her lip to stain the front of her dress, and the fear she battled glittered in the look she slanted in his direction.
She attempted to speak, but the words were halting, garbled by the blood in her mouth, and she bent to one side and spit upon the weeds there, then sat upright and faced him with an amount of self-control he admired, even as he mourned the pain she felt.
"Who is he?" His query was harsh, but she did not withdraw from his hand on her shoulder. She seemed to recognize that his anger was directed at the man who had ridden to the north, across the open pastureland and into the edge of the wooded area beyond.
"Kenny Summers." Speaking those words seemed to have drained her strength, because she bent her head again, one hand reaching upward to touch her lower lip. Simon's stomach lurched as he saw the results of violence against the girl.
She looked up at him then, the swelling fast closing the lid of her right eye, her left fortunately untouched. "He works for my uncle and he's been after me since I've been there."
"Who's your uncle? Would I know him from town?" Simon had little hope that she could speak for long, for her mouth was already trembling from the effort she made.
"He lives on a farm about six miles south of Maple Creek. Joe Cumberland is his name, and Kenny is one of his hired hands. He followed me this morning when I went out to the barn to milk the cow. He wouldn't leave me alone and we were by ourselves in the barn. So I swung the galvanized milk pail at him and hit him across the head with it. All I could think to do was run from him. I snatched up a bridle from a hook on the wall and caught up a mare in the corral. I put the bridle on her right quick and rode off before he could grab at me again."
She bent her head against her knees and shuddered, as if the memory of her attacker had sickened her, and Simon clenched his hand as he thought of the girl, frightened and confused, and the man who had tracked her down here.
She nodded, accepting the handkerchief he offered from his trousers' pocket. After wiping at her mouth, she looked up at Simon. "He told Uncle Joe that he wanted to marry me, last week one day. I told my uncle I wasn't ready to marry anyone and especially not Kenny. He drinks and gambles in town every chance he gets and he's mean. I couldn't bear the thought of him touching me, and when he said he'd have me one way or another, I tried to get away from him. He was mad that day, and today when he followed me to the barn and grabbed me I knew I had to get away from him.
"After I hit him with the bucket, I kicked him. He hit me then, and it was like he was crazy, just shoving me and trying to hurt me." She inhaled sharply and met his gaze again.
"He caught up with me here and I knew I was in for it. I can't tell you how glad I was to see you. You're a good shot, mister."
Simon felt an ironic smile touch his lips as he considered his next words. How to tell this girl that he was a minister, a servant of God, a man of the cloth. All neat and tidy in his good suit, going out to call on a parishioner and his ailing wife, toting a rifle behind his saddle. A man supposedly dedicated to peace and love. And yet, he'd shot a man, without thinking twice about it, had lifted his gun and put a bullet into a man's shoulder.
He laughed, a rueful sound. "I'm not really a good shot, ma'am. In this case, just lucky, I suspect. I carry the gun for protection, for I've been warned by the people in my church that this part of the country is still a bit untamed, and my safety could be in jeopardy when I ride out alone."
She stood then, looking up at him with a rare dignity he couldn't help but admire, but the expression on her face was puzzled. "I don't recognize you, mister. But I surely appreciate your help."
"I'm Simon Grafton, pastor of the Methodist church in town," he said, noting her quick smile and look of relief, as if his profession made him safe in her view.
"My name is Grace Benson," she said quietly, pressing his handkerchief against her mouth again, then dabbing at her eyes. "My uncle took me in when my folks died a year ago. I keep house for him, and cook for his hired hands."
"And he pays you for your work?" Simon asked, recognizing that she was poorly dressed and appeared not to be the recipient of her uncle's loving care.
"No, he's given me a place to live, though," she said. Her heart pounded in her chest as she stood before the man who had come to her rescue, a tall, dark-haired stranger. Reverend Simon Grafton, he'd said.
He seemed kindly, his eyes shining upon her with a tenderness she had not expected. Men seemed to be all of a sort in her experience. Ever looking at a girl as if wondering what she would be willing to offer. But this Reverend Grafton appeared to be a different kind. Not like the men in her hometown, two of whom had been determined to possess her. She was well aware of the blessing, or perhaps curse, of having unusual beauty, for Kenny Summers was not the first man to approach her. She'd learned to repel the advances of such men over the past two years or so, fearful of all men as a result.
She clung to the assurance given her by Simon Grafton, sensing that he was not a man to be feared. She'd learned well to remain aloof to men in general, especially to Kenny Summers, he of the grasping hands and harsh, guttural words. She shivered at the thought, and Simon Grafton dropped his hand from her shoulder, then took a step toward his horse. Reaching behind his saddle he untied a rolled bit of blanket, then turned to face her once more.
"Are you cold?" he asked, unfolding the small quilt he held. He placed it around her shoulders and stepped back, as if he would not encroach on her in an unseemly manner.
She held it tightly, warming in its folds, and whispered her thanks. Then she looked up to meet his dark gaze. "I've seen you somewhere, maybe at the general store."
He whipped his hat from his head, as if recognizing that he'd neglected his manners. "That may well be, ma'am. I do my shopping there, just odds and ends mostly, for my housekeeper tends to the buying of foodstuffs."
Her sigh of relief was silent, but her heart stopped its galloping pace and settled down a bit. "I have a mare around here somewhere, but I don't know where she went when Kenny knocked me off her back. I was riding without a saddle and I slid off before I knew it." She looked around her, hoping for a glimpse of the chestnut filly she'd mounted and ridden without a second thought, so intent on fleeing Kenny's presence she hadn't properly thought out her escape from him. She might have known he'd follow her and eventually catch up.
"I feel so stupid, Mr. Grafton. I ran off without thinking, just trying to get away from Kenny, and I'd have done better to run back to the house and lock myself in. This has been a real mess, and I'll warrant my uncle is worried about me."
She eyed the man before her and then smoothed her skirts and brushed her hair back, all too aware that she hadn't taken time to braid it this morning before helping with the chores. Bad enough that she was bleeding and bruised, her clothing soiled from the dust of the road and she'd never felt so disheveled and inadequate in her life. This man, if his words were to be believed, was the local minister, and she certainly was not presenting a picture of a well-groomed woman before him.
Simon spoke quickly, his mind working at a rapid pace. "Do you want to go home? If so, I'll escort you back to your uncle's place. Or else I can take you with me to the farm where I'm scheduled to make an appearance this morning. Mr. and Mrs. Blackwood are an elderly couple who haven't been able to get out to church, what with the missus ailing. I'm on my way to visit them."
The girl seemed to deliberate for a moment and then she nodded her head, as if she had reached a decision. "I'll go with you, sir. If I go back to my uncle's, he will no doubt be out in the fields, cutting hay, and if Kenny is still around, he'll be watching for me. I don't want to see him again." As if her thoughts were chilling she shivered again within the folds of his small quilt, and Simon's heart was touched by her predicament.
"We'll go to the Blackwood farm. You can wash up a bit and later on I can let your uncle know that you're all right."
"Thank you. I don't know how to tell you how much I appreciate your going out on a limb for me this morning. I fear my uncle will not appreciate my dislike of Kenny. He wants me to be married and off his hands."
"I rather think the Blackwoods will enjoy meeting you," Simon said with a grin, thinking of the man and his wife who were without family nearby, who struggled alone on a farm with but a single hired hand to do the work in the barn.
"I'd like to go there and meet the folks and clean up a bit," the girl said, as if a decision had been made and welcomed, for her mouth curved in a smile that held appreciation for his efforts.
"Well, Miss Grace, let's take a ride together," Simon said, his voice quiet, as if he would comfort her. "I don't see your horse anywhere around. I think you're right, for she must have bolted, maybe even run off back home, when you fell from her back. If you don't mind riding double, my horse will bear the load easily."
He mounted his gelding and reached down for her hand, lifting her easily to sit astride behind himself. From the corner of his eye, he watched her smooth her skirts over her legs as much as possible and then he slid his rifle into the scabbard, slipping it beneath her leg until it was lodged in place.
"Are you hanging on tight?" he asked, feeling her hands clutching at his suit coat.
"Can I reach beneath and hold on to your belt?"
He smiled, recognizing that she was embarrassed by her own plea, then removed his suit coat and folded it over his lap, offering the leather belt he wore as a handhold for her.
He pressed his heels to the gelding's sides and his horse set off at a quick pace, seemingly not even aware of the extra weight on his back. Simon's thoughts were filled with the slight figure of the woman who sat behind him, whose dark hair fell loosely about her shoulders and down her back. She was a young woman of perhaps twenty or so, he thought, and to that end asked a question.
"How old are you, Grace? How did your parents die and leave you alone at such a young age?"