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Waiting for MorningA Brides of Last Chance Ranch Novel
By Margaret Brownley
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Margaret Brownley
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDobson Creek, Colorado April 1896
Something was wrong. Molly Hatfield felt it in her bones. She cast an anxious glance around Big Jim's Saloon. A couple of regulars were already passed out; others sat staring into amber drinks. It was one o'clock in the afternoon, a time when most men were at the mines.
On this cold April day, icy wind blew off the snow-covered peaks and the batwing doors squeaked in protest. Sawdust raced across the tobacco-stained floor, clinging to wooden chair legs and the soles of dusty boots.
Shaking away her uneasiness, Molly turned back to the burly owner standing behind the bar. If he detected anything out of the ordinary, he kept it to himself. He didn't even seem to notice the lace tucked in her bodice for modesty. He insisted his "girls" dress in costume at all times, including face paint, even when not working.
A stogie clamped between his yellow teeth, he squinted down his bulbous nose and counted out each pitiful coin as if doing her a favor.
Her lips puckered with irritation. What pleasure could he get from making her beg for her weekly wage? Or did he simply enjoy the power he held over his dance hall girls? The truth was Molly needed him more than he needed her.
"Please hurry." Why the sudden need for haste she didn't know, but she was anxious to get back to her fourteen-year-old wheelchair-bound brother. Not wanting to bring one so young to the saloon, she'd left him waiting in the lobby of the King Hotel, out of the cold. She'd done it before and he'd always been safe there. Still ...
Big Jim's bushy black eyebrows met in an upside-down V, but any effort to pick up speed was negligible.
From outside came the dreaded sound of pistol shots—six loud blasts in rapid succession, snapping through the air like an angry whip.
Molly sucked in her breath and Jim's head jerked back, hands frozen over the till. Six gunshots meant fire and fire meant trouble.
Thinking fast, she scooped the money from the bar without waiting for the full count and darted out of the saloon.
People screamed and raced by, practically knocking her over. While pocketing her precious coins she dropped one, but to dive for it would be sheer folly. She would be trampled to death.
"Fire, fire!" someone shouted as if the gunshots hadn't already sounded the alarm.
"Where's the fire?" she cried. Please, God, don't let it be the hotel. Not the hotel.
"The King!" someone yelled.
Heart pounding, Molly swam against the stream of people. Swallowing the metallic taste filling her mouth, she lashed out, "Let me through. Let me through!"
She plowed headlong into the oncoming crowd with wind-milling arms. She'd failed to save her brother once but—please, God—not this time. Don't let me fail him this time.
Horses whinnied and pulled at traces. Dogs barked. A steer barreled down the street followed by several frenzied goats. A man shoved bills into the hands of a wagon owner and signaled for several children to pile inside.
Billows of dark smoke loomed over the red light district, turning gray skies almost black. Pushed by biting, raw winds, the fire quickly leaped jackrabbit-style along Benson Avenue with a fierce roar, gobbling up the wood-framed buildings that made up the heart of town. The clanging of bells and pounding of horses' hooves signaled the arrival of the shiny new fire engine, the mayor's pride and joy. Several men dragged an old pumper up the street, its heavy iron wheels skidding on the icy road.
Mine whistles shrieked in the distance and already miners poured into the street with buckets and shovels.
"Let me through," Molly cried. Smoke burned her eyes. Her vision blurred. "My brother is at the hotel. Will somebody please help?"
"Good luck, lady," a man yelled out.
A drunk stood in the doorway of the drugstore laughing his fool head off.
The closer she got to the hotel, the thicker the smoke. Molly pulled a handkerchief from her sleeve and covered her mouth. A man dressed in a canvas coat waved her back with a stick of dynamite.
"Ya better run, lassie."
Already, the dynamiters were getting ready to blow up houses and businesses around the hotel in an attempt to stop the fire.
Her way blocked by vehicles, Molly nearly panicked until the pumper truck moved just enough to let her squeeze by. Crunching her skirt in sweaty palms, she darted past the dynamiter. A wagon shot out of an alley in front of her and she leaped aside. It missed her by an inch, splashing her blue taffeta skirt with mud.
Farther down the road a large pox-scarred man stopped her. "If you don't plan on meetin' your Maker today, you better get a move on, ma'am."
Mr. Wright, the owner of the hardware store, fired a shotgun into the air. "You're not blowing up my place," he yelled, seemingly oblivious to the flames already devouring the roof of his establishment.
While the two men argued, Molly dodged around them. Fire equipment blocked the street in front of the hotel. Flames shot from second-floor windows and long, fiery tongues licked the sky.
Icy fingers of fear gripped her but she pressed on, dodging falling timbers and bright sparks. A fireman with a blackened face squirted a thin stream of water onto the burning building. A stream of spit would have been more useful.
A dynamite blast from across the street sent a faro table crashing to the ground mere inches away, splintering into pieces.
She grabbed the fireman's arm with trembling hands. "My brother! Have you seen him?" She shouted to be heard above the explosions, screams, and roar of angry flames. "He's in a wheelchair."
"Sorry, ma'am. Ain't seen no wheelchair."
"Please, he may still be in there," she cried.
The fireman shook his head. "I've got me a wife and seven kids. I ain't goin' in there. The roof's about to cave in."
She spun around and stopped Mr. and Mrs. Merrick, who were pulling a wooden trunk. The man was one of Big Jim's regulars, his wife a staunch church member. "Help me—my brother is in that building."
The woman shoved Molly away from her husband, a spiteful look on her face. "Get out of the way, you harlot."
Molly stumbled back to catch her footing. Staring at the flames in horror, she screamed, "No, no, no!" Something welled up inside, something bigger, stronger, and more urgent than fear. He can't die. He mustn't die. She wouldn't let him die.
Shooting past the startled fireman, she ran so fast she hardly knew what she was doing.
"Hey, you can't go in there!" he shouted.
She dashed beneath the overhang and darted through the door of the hotel. The ceiling and walls were ablaze, the smoke so thick it blinded her. Dropping on hands and knees, she held her head close to the floor. Throat closed in protest, she gasped for air, eyes burning.
The roar of the fire and crackling wood drowned out her voice and she yelled again and again. Where had she left him? Think. The fireplace.
She reached the stairs. She'd gone too far. Panicked, she spun around on all fours.
Where was it? Where was the fireplace? She scrambled around the floor spider-like until spotting the wheels of her brother's chair. "Donny!"
A massive wooden beam plunged from the ceiling, missing the wheelchair by inches. Sparks flew onto her skirt. She brushed them off and scooted forward, mindless of the hot embers beneath her palms. Above the roar of flames came the explosive sound of dynamite.
"I'm here!" she gasped.
Her brother was slumped over, head on his chest. Scrambling to her feet, she grabbed the push handle and steered the wheelchair blindly through the smoke-filled inferno. It was by sheer determination that she found the door. She exited the hotel, coughing. They barely made it out in time before a thunderous roar announced the collapse of the second floor.
She barreled forward. The wheels wobbled, the chair shook. It was like pushing a mule uphill, but she didn't dare pause until they were a safe distance from the burning buildings. Forced to catch her breath, she sank to her knees in front of her brother and grabbed his hands.
"Donny," she rasped. She stroked his ash-covered face, her blistered hands leaving a trail of blood.
He looked at her with watery eyes. "I ... I was so scared."
"You're safe now," she managed, her voice ragged.
"I didn't think you'd come—" He coughed so hard she feared he would hack up his insides. "I thought—"
She grabbed the canteen from his chair and forced water down his throat. "I'm here now. It would take a whole lot more than a fire to keep me away." A blast of dynamite made her jump to her feet.
"You're gonna have to move, ma'am," a fireman shouted.
"We're going, we're going." She pushed the chair a few inches when the front wheel sank into the mud. Grunting, she yanked at the chair, muscles straining, but it wouldn't budge.
Wiping sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand, she picked up a smoking timber, stuck the heated end in the mud, and shoved it under the front wheel. She gave it a mighty shove and the wheel broke free.
Dodging wagons, fire equipment, frantic horses, people, and dogs, she kept going until at last they reached their canvas home, one of dozens that dotted the area outside of town where most of the miners lived. She filled a glass from the bucket of well water and handed it to her brother, then poured a glass for herself.
A cracked marble-top washstand, two cots, and a table and chairs were pushed to the side to make a space for walking. A cook-stove filled a corner. Their prized possession was the spinet piano carted around Cape Horn by their mother all the way from Ireland. A tightly strung rope served a dual purpose, providing a place to hang clothes and a small measure of privacy.
The tent was patched and the canvas badly stained, but unlike the expensive homes on Strathern Avenue, their humble dwelling remained intact. At least for now. But if the wind changed ...
No, no, mustn't think about what might happen or could happen. Donny was safe. That's all that mattered, though she feared for his lungs.
Dynamite blasts in the distance kept her on edge but she tried not to show it.
Donny wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "They're g-g-getting closer."
"It just sounds that way," she said, hoping he didn't notice her shaking hands. No sense them both worrying. "Let's get you cleaned up."
It was just the two of them. Their papa had died three years earlier from miner's consumption, but never before had she felt as alone as she did at that moment. Even God seemed a distance away, though she prayed.
Trembling, she stoked up the fire in the oven with more vigor than it required and put water on to boil. Donny's chest rose and fell with each wheezing breath and she hoped the steam would help him.
She reached for his medicine. Careful to pour only three drops on a handkerchief, she held it to his nose. Within seconds his breathing improved. She covered him with a blanket and wrapped her blistered hands in a wet cloth.
If Donny so much as suspected how very close she was to panicking, it would frighten him even more and make his asthma worse. For him, she had to be brave.
She shivered. It was cold—so cold—and the flapping of the canvas walls indicated a worrisome wind change.
The thunderous sound of hooves followed by shouts made her mouth go dry. She ripped open the canvas flap and froze; a wall of orange flames was heading straight for the tent they called home.
Chapter TwoArizona Territory—three weeks later
Never could Molly imagine a more sorrowful excuse for a horse. No amount of whip cracking made the swayback dapple go one whit faster. Patience spent, she swiped a wayward strand of hair from her face.
"He walks like he's wearing hobbles," she muttered.
Her brother sat on the wagon seat next to her in stony-faced silence. No surprises there. Donny had hardly spoken a word since they'd left Colorado. Punishing her, no doubt, for dragging him to this godforsaken desert. Well, she had news for him; she didn't want to be here either.
Certainly she didn't want to be on this lonely dirt road fighting with a belly-dragging horse in eighty-degree heat. But with Dobson Creek in ashes, it wasn't like she had a lot of choices.
Her brother depended on her to be strong and she hadn't let him down. She had done such a good job of convincing Donny that things would work out, he didn't know how scared she had been. How scared she still was.
She wasn't about to let a dumb-fool horse get the best of her now. "Gid-up!"
The weathered old buckboard lumbered along, creaking and groaning as if each turn of the wheel would be its last. At that rate it would take a month of Sundays before they reached the Last Chance Ranch—if there was such a thing. There better be because it certainly was her last chance.
She was tired and hot and hungry and probably lost. Definitely lost. "Do you see anything?" she asked with considerably less hope than when she'd last asked the question. "A ranch or sign?" Anything but cacti, sand, endless blue skies, and the tail end of a stubborn mule-horse. Nothing seemed to move, not even the occasional lizard sunbathing on a rock.
She shot a glance at her brother's rigid profile showing beneath the stiff brim of his flat cap. They shared similar raven hair, upturned noses, and emerald-green eyes—all inherited from their Dublin-born mama. Donny's stubborn expression was entirely his own.
"I hope your disposition improves before we reach the ranch. No one's going to hire me if you're rude or unpleasant."
God knew she needed the work, if you could call what Miss Walker offered a job. Heiress to a cattle ranch? She still couldn't get over the absurdity of it or the desperation that brought her here.
Even if the strange offer was legitimate, what chance did she have of proving to the owner she was capable of learning the cattle business? Especially with a wheelchair-bound brother in tow, a boy with weak lungs to boot. Why, oh why, hadn't she been more forthright in her telegram and told the ranch owner that she had an invalid brother? It wasn't her intention to be secretive, but experience had taught her to tread with care.
Her anxiety increased with every cactus they passed. The desert might be good for bad lungs, but it didn't look good for anything else.
The livery stable owner had said to follow the road. So where was the ranch? Where, for that matter, was anything?
"Whoa." The horse went from barely moving to completely stopped. She reached for her canteen and offered it to her brother. "Here. Be careful. That's all the water we have left."
He took the canteen without so much as a glance her way. After a quick swallow, he handed it back, wiping his lips with his shirtsleeve.
She took a sip before recapping the top, a drop of precious water falling upon her purple frock—one of the few she'd been able to save before escaping the fire. The heat and dust had taken their toll, but there was little she could do about it. She straightened her leg o'mutton sleeves and checked the hatpin holding her fancy plumed hat that matched her dress. She debated the wisdom of applying more complexion powder to her heated face and decided against it, though she couldn't resist dabbing more rouge onto her parched lips.
The smell of smoke seemed to cling to her body and no amount of scrubbing had dissipated the acrid stench. She sprayed toilet water behind her ear—a temporary solution at best. The stench of burning wood and even burning flesh would soon come back to haunt her.
A strange rumbling in the distance broke the silence. She dropped her mirror into her drawstring purse and glanced around. "What is that odd noise?"
Her brother shifted the best he could in his seat and looked over his shoulder. "Sounds like a mining trolley."
"There are no mines out here." In the mountains maybe, but certainly not in this flat, barren land.
The noise grew louder, followed by a loud blast. Startled, Molly ducked. "Quick. Put your head down. Someone's shooting at us!"
She reached behind the seat for the double barrel shotgun and haversack and slid down to the floorboards. Her brother, unable to move his legs, slid his torso sideways until his head was hidden by the back of the seat.
"They want to rob us," he said, his eyes wide. "Arizona is full of highwaymen. Horrible men who rob you and leave you in the desert to die. I read about them."
"Now's a fine time to tell me." Dropping to her knees, she slid two cartridges into the weapon. "Stay down—and pray!"
Her father's shotgun was the only thing of his she'd been able to save from the fire. Fortunately, he'd taught her how to use it. The air exploded with more gunfire and she hunkered even lower. Pushing the barrel of her weapon along the top of the seat, she took aim, the long plume of her hat bobbing up and down.
Excerpted from Waiting for Morning by Margaret Brownley Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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