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She was going to hell.
Maggie Hudson hurried along the boardwalk feeling the winter chill on her cheeks, the knot of worry in her stomach—and the weight of the knowledge that she might very well go to hell.
Could a woman's soul be condemned to everlasting damnation for simply thinking unkind thoughts? Maggie wasn't sure—hoped it wasn't so. Because if it were, all the unsavory, unchristian, unladylike notions racing through her mind right now would surely condemn her to an eternity of fire and brimstone.
She picked up her pace. Around her the folks of Crystal Springs went about their business beneath the gloomy afternoon sky. Men in suits, miners with long beards, cowboys with guns on their hips. Women—some in calico and gingham, others in fine Eastern fashions—shepherded along their children, who were too young for school. Horses, wagons and carriages moved though the damp dirt of Main Street.
Maggie blended in with the other young women in town, in her gingham dress and the bonnet that covered her dark hair. Yet a woman her age—twenty—should have been trailing a child, or at the very least, walking with her husband.
Maggie was quite certain no one on the streets of Crystal Springs was surprised to see her alone.
Nor was she surprised to endure the looks of the towns-folk and feel the familiar sting of judgment, condemnation...pity. She knew what they were thinking.
Maggie forced the tension from her face, putting in place the neutral expression that had served her well these past months. The last thing she needed was to draw attention to herself. Especially now, when she'd finally been given the opportunity to redeem herself in the eyes of the town.
And she had so much to redeem herself for.
Maggie paused on the boardwalk, her gaze riveted on the jailhouse down the block.
Sheriff Jack Crawford. New in town, he'd been hired by the mayor only a few weeks ago. Maggie had never met him but she'd seen him around town. He'd been in Hudson's Mercantile, the general store her father owned, but Maggie had hidden in the stockroom each time she'd seen him approach; there was only so much even Maggie could take.
But there would be no hiding today. Jack Crawford stood in her way of finally making the long climb back toward self-respect. And Maggie wasn't about to let him do that.
She pulled in a big breath, lifted her chin and went inside the jailhouse.
Maggie was anxious to be out of the chilly breeze, yet it seemed no warmer in here. The few furnishings—desk, stove, gun racks—gave the room a cold, hard look. The stove in the corner put out little heat. The place smelled of gun oil and burned coffee. Off to the left, Maggie caught sight of the hallway that, she supposed, led to the cells.
The sheriff sat behind his desk across the room, feet propped up, reading the newspaper.
His gaze came up quickly, pinning Maggie in place. His feet hit the floor and he shot up from his chair so quickly it gave her a start. She gasped and froze. He froze, too. For a long moment the two of them just stood there, still as statues, staring at each other.
Finally, he took a single step forward. "Afternoon," he said. "What can I do for you?" Maggie kept staring. She knew that her mouth had sagged open but she couldn't seem to close it. Nor could she stop her knees from shaking or her mind from racing.
This was Sheriff Jack Crawford? She'd only seen him from a distance when, thanks to the cold, he'd had his jacket collar turned up and his hat pulled low. She hadn't realized he was...handsome.
Tall with wide straight shoulders, a head full of dark brown, slightly wavy hair and piercing blue eyes that were, quite possibly, responsible for the hammering of her heart.
Why had she not known how handsome he was? Why had she not realized it?
And why had she hidden in the stockroom every time he'd come to her father's mercantile?
He hung his thumb in his gun belt. "Can I help you?"
Maggie's senses snapped back, bringing with them a wave of embarrassment. Good gracious, what was she doing? Ogling a man—the sheriff, of all people—when her very future hung in the balance.
She cleared her throat. "I'm Maggie—"
"Hudson. I know who you are."
His tone was crisp and businesslike, cooling Maggie's feelings considerably.
Jack nodded toward the badge pinned to his pale blue shirt. "I make it my business to know everybody town."
She supposed that was a good quality in a lawman but it irritated Maggie slightly to think that he knew who she was. It alarmed her, too. What else did he already know about her?
Maggie exhaled slowly, composing herself. She nodded toward the hallway that led to the jail cells.
"I'm here to see Emmett Frazier," she said.
Jack's left eyebrow crept upward. "Are you a relative?"
"Is he your beau?"
Maggie cringed inwardly, thinking that most folks in Crystal Springs probably reckoned that being courted by the likes of Emmett Frazier was the best she'd ever do.
"I need to see him on church business," Maggie told him, making her voice sound as crisp as the sheriff's.
"Church. It's the new building on the edge of town—"
"I know where the church is."
"Oh? I didn't realize that," Maggie said, arching her brows, "since no one has ever seen you there."
Jack shifted and Maggie glimpsed a flash of pink on his cheeks. An odd wave of satisfaction zipped through her, then evaporated when he crossed both arms across his chest and squared his shoulders. "You can't just come in here asking to visit a prisoner," he told her. "I've got official business to attend to."
Maggie looked pointedly at the desk where he'd had his feet up, then at the newspaper he'd been reading and, finally, the rest of the room, empty but for the two of them.
"I can see you're terribly busy," she told him. "But I'm here on official business."
His eyebrows drew together. "What sort of business?"
"I'll have to see Emmett first. Otherwise, it would be an intrusion into your...busy schedule."
Jack stared at her for a long moment, his eyes narrowed, his jaw set. Maggie steeled herself, tried to keep calm when what she wanted to do was scream at him. Finally, he headed toward the hallway that held the jail cells.
Good gracious, what wide shoulders he had. The notion whipped through Maggie's mind. And a long back, too. His gun belt rode low on his hips, and his—
Jack glanced over his shoulder. Maggie jerked her gaze away, feigning interest in the gun racks, and determinedly held her gaze on them until she heard his footsteps disappear down the hallway. Heat rose in her cheeks.
A moment later she heard the deep rumble of his voice, then he stepped into the office. She started toward the cells, but he blocked her path.
Jack's gaze ran the length of her, head to toe, making her acutely aware of the dress she wore. For a desperate instant she wished to be wearing anything but the tired gingham gown. Oh, to look pretty—
"Have you got anything on you?" Jack asked, his eyes on her face now. "Gun? Knife? Any sort of weapon?"
So that's why he was looking at her. Maggie felt foolish, thinking otherwise. Her, of all people, wanting to look pretty.
Fighting off her embarrassment, Maggie told him, "As I said earlier, I'm here on church business. I don't know what sort of church you attended in the past, Mr. Crawford, but here in Crystal Springs we don't arm ourselves while doing the Lord's work."
"I'll keep that in mind, should I decide to attend church," he said, then led the way down the hall.
Three cells stood on the left. Emmett Frazier occupied the last one; the others were empty. Feeble sunlight filtered through tiny windows. The air was damp and cold.
Off to the right was another room. Maggie glanced inside. A bunk stood against the far wall, a single gray wool blanket spread across it. A pair of long johns peeked out from the open drawer of a bureau. There was a washstand surrounded by a razor, shaving mug, comb and brush. Trousers and shirts hung from a row of wall pegs. The stove was cold.
This was undoubtedly the most unappealing room she'd ever seen.
She gazed up at Jack. "Is this where you live?"
"It suits me just fine," Jack told her. "But how could it?" Maggie asked, shaking her head. "Do you want to see the prisoner or not?" he asked. Jack didn't wait for an answer, just strode down the hallway leaving Maggie to follow.
"Keep away from the bars," he told her. "I'll be in the office."
Jack threw a glare at the prisoner so harsh it brought a deeper chill to the room, then left, leaving Maggie alone with Emmett Frazier.
He stood in the middle of the cell, head down, shoulders slumped. He was a big man, tall, with an unkempt beard and blond hair that hung to his shoulders. Fist-fights and hard living made him appear older than his thirty years.
Maggie's heart sank. Here stood her redemption. Her salvation. Her only chance to get back in the good graces of Crystal Springs.
When Herb Foster from the feed-and-grain store had stopped by Hudson's Mercantile today and told her that Emmett had been arrested last night, she'd been frantic. Obviously, her worry had been well-founded.
She stepped closer to the bars. "Emmett Frazier, just look at you. What have you got to say for yourself?"
"I'm sorry, Miss Maggie. Powerful sorry," he said. "I went and did just exactly what I promised you I wouldn't."
"So it's true?" she asked. "You were out drinking last night? And fighting?"
"Yes, ma'am," Emmett admitted sorrowfully.
"You gave me your word," she reminded him. "You came to me and asked—begged—me for help."
He shook his shaggy head. "I know...I know...."
"You should be ashamed of yourself, Emmett," she told him. "Why, most people simply feel the presence of the Lord in their lives, but He actually spoke to you."
Emmett lifted his head, his bloodshot eyes mournful. "I am ashamed, Miss Maggie. Truly, I am." He plastered his meaty palm against his chest. "But if you could give me another chance, I won't let you down. I swear I won't."
Maggie contemplated the gentle giant of a man standing before her. Emmett Frazier did odd jobs around town, mined a claim in the hills occasionally, worked on the surrounding cattle ranches when he needed money. He was a good man, usually. Quiet and kind.Yet his love of a good fistfight and a bottle of cheap whiskey had plagued his life for years.
But his day of reckoning had come earlier this week in the alley behind the Wild Cat Saloon, and sent him running to Maggie at the mercantile. God had spoken to him, he declared, and told him exactly what he should do to redeem himself for his life of excess and debauchery.
More than anyone in Crystal Springs, Maggie understood the need for redemption. By the end of their conversation Emmett had convinced her of her role in his salvation. She'd realized it would be her salvation, as well.
"All right," Maggie told him. "I'll take care of it."
"Thank you, Miss Maggie, thank you kindly."
"But you'd better not let me down again." She wagged her finger at him.
"I won't." He turned his palm toward her. "I swear, I won't let you down."
"Or yourself—or God."
"Yes, ma'am. I'll be good. I promise you—" Emmett pointed skyward "—and the good Lord above."
Maggie returned to the office and found Jack seated behind his desk, leafing through a stack of Wanted posters.
"You can let him out of jail now," she said.
Jack's gaze came up. "How's that?"
Maggie gestured to the ring of keys hanging by the rifle racks and said, "It's all right to let Emmett go."
"Is that so?"
"Yes, and hurry up, will you? I have to get back to the store." She'd been away for a while now and she shuddered to think what her father had done in her absence.
Jack leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbow on the desk. "In case you were confused by the bars on the cells, Miss Hudson, this is the jailhouse, and Emmett Frazier is a prisoner. He's not going anywhere."
Alarm zipped through Maggie. "But he has to be released. He's needed at the church."
Jack gave her a "so what?" shrug.
Her redemption, her salvation, flashed in her mind— along with Emmett's.