At seventeen, strong-willed Harmony Jones has made it to Cripple Creek all by herself. Now all she needs to reach her inherited claim is a guide—and the only one she can find is the devastatingly handsome Buck Hanner.
The challenge and dangers of searching for gold in the rugged Rocky Mountains force Buck and Harmony to recognize the strength and bravery each possesses—and the love they discover leads them to a much greater treasure. . . .
“Power, passion, tragedy and triumph are Rosanne Bittner’s hallmarks. Again and again, she brings readers to tears.” —RT Book Reviews
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A mist began to roll in off the broad, muddy waters as night descended over the docks of St. Louis. Sounds — voices and laughter, bells and whistles of huge steamers — were carried, magnified, over the still waters, so that voices from far away could easily be heard by those on the docks now being quietly deserted. The din of the daytime crowd that swarmed noisily over the pier to board ships heading west had diminished, and now there was only the sound of water lazily lapping against dock posts and boat sides. Few people remained on the docks. At night all activity seemed to take place away from them, in town, where voices could be heard echoing through the mist, along with laughter, the piano music drifting from saloons, the clattering of horse-drawn carriages, and in the distance the rumble of a Kansas Pacific engine which was carrying even more passengers westward by faster but more expensive means. It was 1885, and the westward movement was in full swing.
Little Harmony Jones sat huddled against a barrel, pulling her plain cotton dress over her bent knees in an attempt to keep warm. She clung to a rag doll and a worn carpetbag, its contents her only other possessions. Earlier, the bright May day had been very warm, and Harmony's mother had carried her cape for her. Now as the mist settled in, Harmony had nothing to put around her shoulders for protection from the damp, cool air. But she tried not to despair. Surely her parents would come for her soon, for they had promised that if she waited here and did not move from this spot, they would come and get her as soon as they had settled a few things with the captain of the steamship they intended to take west.
She had waited faithfully, for she was a good little girl, an obedient child who tried very hard not to make her parents angry. She loved them, even when her father drank too much whiskey and shoved her around, or when her mother pinched or hit her for getting on her nerves. They were Harmony's only security, and after all, what six-year-old child does not have faith in her parents? They would come, and her mother would put the cape around her shoulders and apologize for taking so long to come for her.
Her green eyes began to fill with unwanted tears, for if they came back and found her crying, they would be angry. She thought about going to look for them, but if she moved from this place, they might return and find her gone. No, she could not leave. Her rosy little lips puckered, and a tear slipped down her pudgy, still babyish cheek. Her naturally curly, golden hair, curlier in the damp air, was almost wet now from the mist. It clung to her pretty face in ringlets, enhancing the large green eyes and unusual beauty of this child.
The smell of fish and oil hung in the air, mixed with the pungent odor of seaweed and moss. All women had vanished, and the few men who walked the docks now were loud and usually drunk. Little Harmony huddled farther into the shadow of the barrel, not wanting anyone but her own parents to notice her. She was afraid of strangers, especially the kind who walked these docks at night. A gripping fear crept into her soul. What if one of them saw her! Perhaps he would take out a big knife and cut her into little pieces! Perhaps he would sell her to pirates! Even worse was her fear of that unknown thing she sensed despite her young age — something vile and horrible that wicked men did to little girls — yet she didn't really know just what it was, only that something awful awaited her in the night in this strange place.
Why, oh why, didn't her parents come? In the deep recesses of her mind a small voice gave her the answer: They were not coming. They had abandoned her. But she refused to listen to that voice, for it evoked such terror in her that she wanted to scream. Yet she dared not scream for fear someone would hear her and capture her. No! They would not abandon her! They were her mother and father. She loved them. She was a good girl — as good as she could possibly be. She seldom talked. She was not demanding. She did what they told her to do. Mothers and fathers might get mad at their children, but they did not abandon them!
She closed her eyes, and more tears ran quietly down her cheeks. She prayed to the God she had heard existed, a God she knew little about. Her lips puckered more, and she sniffed. They must come! They must! Yes, they would come soon, and never again would she feel this awful terror, this desperate loneliness. She did not know what to do. Her parents had always made the decisions for her. How could she make her own?
More laughter came to her ears, carried on the mist. Were her parents among those laughing? Were they having a good time on a steamship they had boarded without her? Of course not. They would not have done that. Perhaps something terrible had happened to them. Perhaps some of these evil men had attacked her parents and stolen their money, beaten them and left them for dead! Surely it was something like that, for there could be no other reason that they would not come for her. Perhaps she should sneak away from here and try to find the police, tell them they must search for her parents.
She squeezed the rag doll closer to her breast, her pudgy fingers digging into the cloth desperately. She shivered, fought back more tears, and dreamed about being in bed, with a nice warm comforter covering her, a warm fire nearby. Not that there had always been warm fires where they'd lived. It depended on what hotel they were in, in what city. Sometimes they had slept in a tent or a wagon, or someone's barn. Harmony Jones had never known any real home, for her parents were drifters who made their money by a variety of means — singing, dancing, gambling, and although Harmony did not know it, stealing. They never stayed in one place for long, and had often complained that soon they would have to light so Harmony could go to school. But their discussions of settling down always ended in drinking and arguments, so Harmony quietly stayed out of their way, trying to attract as little attention as possible and blaming herself for her parents' unhappiness and anger.
It was the same wherever they went, Harmony waiting in the shadows while her parents put on performances, gambled, or sometimes just left for a while and then came back with money in their hands. When they had money they drank and often fought. Finally, when they slept, Harmony would curl up under her quilt, hugging her doll, and sleep too, pretending a barren hotel room was a grand house — a home of her own that she did not have to leave.
Now she would give anything just to be in a hotel room, wherever it might be; to be with her parents, wherever they might be. There had been times when her mother held her, rare moments when the woman cried and told Harmony she was sorry for hitting her, when she asked the child to forgive her. And, of course, Harmony had always done so, for she loved her mother. She loved her father too. When he didn't drink, he was often jolly and joking. On occasion he played the banjo for Harmony and sang a funny song about dancing turkeys, making her laugh. Sometimes her parents were not kind to her and they didn't have a real home, but Harmony was sure that they loved her, just as she was sure she loved Patrick and Sadie Jones. They would never abandon her.
She could not hold back the tears then, for terror and indecision finally erupted in her. She squeezed as far back against the barrel and the wall behind her as she could. She would wait there until morning, she decided. When the sun came out, everything would be better. Then she could walk along the docks, unafraid, and find a policeman and tell him something must have happened to her parents. A policeman would find them; everything would be all right. However, another voice told her a different story, and tears kept welling up until they seemed to be emerging from her soul.
Moments later she saw four legs in front of her, two of them wearing shiny black boots, the other two wearing baggy pants that fell over old, worn shoes. She quickly wiped at her eyes and looked up into the faces of two men, both grinning, both holding whiskey bottles and wearing ugly black woolen jackets and worn caps.
"Well, looky here," one of them remarked, bending down and grasping her face in a rough, dirty hand. "A little golden treasure."
She jerked her face away, her heart filled with terror. She quickly pushed with her feet to get back even farther, but there was no place to go. The man put a hand on her knee.
"What are you doin' here, little angel?" he asked with a grin. "You lost?"
She stared at him with wide, frightened eyes, and he grabbed her arm then, jerking her up and shoving her over toward the second man, who grasped her about the waist and held her up.
"Say, I know somebody who'd pay a dear price for something like this," the second man said in a near growl.
"That's what I'm thinking," the first man answered, taking a slug of whiskey. "Only nothin' says we can't have our own fun first, Harry. I don't see nobody around claimin' the pretty little thing."
Harmony's terror erupted in a fit of screaming and kicking and punching. Unwittingly she landed a foot in the right spot, and the second man let go of her so quickly she fell backward. She tried to scramble away, but the first man grabbed her ankle and she screamed more, over and over, until her cries echoed in her ears and all she could feel was the helplessness of being a child in the hands of terrible men.
The train lurched and Harmony awoke with a start. She rubbed at her eyes, realizing she had been having the nightmare again. Had it really been eleven years ago when her parents had abandoned her on the docks? It still seemed like yesterday, and she wondered if the horror of that night would ever leave her. Yet it had all led to this moment. Here she was on a Kansas Pacific train, headed for a new and unknown land, preparing to do something practically unheard of for an inexperienced, single, seventeen- year-old girl. She was going to Colorado to take over a gold claim she had inherited.
She shifted, stretching weary, sore muscles; then she strained to visualize the Rocky Mountains from her window, certain she should be seeing them at any moment even though the train still rumbled through Kansas. To her disappointment she saw only more vast, rolling hills, fences and farmland, cattle and horses, and here and there a small dot of a farmhouse. Sometimes the hills disappeared, and the land was totally flat and seemingly endless, the horizon always the same. She began to wonder if there really were any mountains somewhere in the West. Perhaps she didn't even really own a gold claim.
It was difficult for her not to think the worst about everything, for the worst always seemed to be happening to her. She knew she must be on guard almost constantly now, for she was young and alone. She had purchased a small pistol, which she carried in her handbag but didn't really know how to use. Now she wondered if she was actually capable of shooting anyone should the need arise.
Her predicament was both frightening and exciting. She felt brave and grown-up at one moment, at another terrified, six years old again and abandoned on the docks. Could she really do what she intended — go to a wild town like Cripple Creek and take over what was rightfully hers? How on earth would she even find the claim? Someone would have to lead her there. How would she know who to trust?
She swallowed her doubts. She would find a way, no matter what. She had money and property, and she would make good on what Brian O'Toole had left to her. She looked out the window again. A few buffalo, perhaps only ten or twenty, could be seen in the distance. She stared. She'd never seen the shaggy beasts before and had heard that they were virtually extinct. Apparently that wasn't true. She watched, fascinated, hoping that the Plains Indians were really extinct or safely tucked away on reservations. Yet in watching the buffalo, now disappearing around a bend, and in looking over at the rolling green hills in the distance, she felt a little pang of pity for the Indians she knew nothing about. This had once been their land. It must have been wonderful, being free and having all this land and its game to themselves. Now, though they were on reservations and supposedly well housed and fed, perhaps they felt as abandoned as she had when her parents had left her. Weren't they in the same position in a sense — their lives suddenly and drastically changed, all familiar things removed, suddenly dependent on others for help?
It was confusing to think about how some peoples' lives were determined by fate or chance. What if her parents had not deserted her? Where would she be today? And what if Brian had not found her on the docks, had not left her a gold claim? How much control did people really have over their lives?
Yet if fate had brought Brian O'Toole to her rescue that night, then thank God for fate — and for Brian. She rested her head against the cushioned seat again, remembering that night and all the events that had led to this moment, events that had made her what she was today, determined to be independently wealthy, secure in her own property, dependent on no one. That childhood experience on the docks had left its mark on her emotionally, as had that terrible night not long ago when she'd almost been raped. Maybe in Colorado she could forget those things, could come to terms with the fact that her parents had not loved her and had left her to whatever fate awaited her on the docks. The docks ... Yes, she had endured things and had had to assume responsibilities no child should have to handle. But Brian probably had thought he'd done his best. At least he'd left her his claim.
Brian. Poor dead Brian. She would miss him. She was indebted to him, for if it were not for Brian O'Toole, where would she be today? Brian ... Her mind floated back again ... back to that awful night ... She could still feel the grip on her ankle, the terror of tugging to get away ...
"Let go of her!" she'd heard a man's voice demand. "Let go or I'll cut you from one earlobe to the other!"
The hand grasping her ankle suddenly released its hold, and Little Harmony turned to look up at a third man, who held a knife to the throat of the man who'd grasped her ankle. Her mind whirled. If she ran, she might run into more men like the first ones, with no one to help the next time. This third man obviously had come to her aid. She could only hope she was right. She backed away, moving toward her doll and carpetbag, while the man with the knife shoved the second man toward the first, waving the knife at both of them.
"You filthy scum!" he snarled at them. They both backed away. "Let's see how well fully clothed men swim when they're stinking drunk!" He charged at Harmony's abductors and they started to run. One tripped on a rope and fell, and the man with the knife shoved the blade into its sheath and tackled the second ruffian, spinning him round and landing a sound punch that sent him flying into the water. He turned then and ran after the first man, who had gotten up to flee. He dived, grabbing the man's ankle and making him fall again; then he scrambled up and began to kick him and roll him over until, with a yell and a splash, the man fell off the dock into the water.
The child's apparent savior then stood there, staring after her persecutors for a moment, breathing heavily, watching to make sure they either swam away or drowned. Harmony could not see what happened, but neither of the men reappeared, and the man who had thrown them into the water did not seem to care. He turned, the rage in his brown eyes changing to gentle concern. Harmony watched carefully as he approached, her natural instincts telling her she need not fear this man. His hair was so red it intrigued her, and his eyes were full of a sparkling kindness. In spite of being shorter than the men he had attacked, he had exhibited a mighty fury in her defense, and she saw now that his arms and shoulders were husky and strong.
"Don't you go running off now," he told her gently. "I won't hurt you."
She clung to her doll and carpetbag, pressing her back against the wall of a warehouse as he came closer and knelt in front of her. "Who are you?" he asked. "What are you doing here?"
She swallowed, wiping at more tears. "I'm waiting ... for my parents," she whimpered. "They'll be here ... any minute."
The man looked around, unable to see up and down the docks because of the misty darkness. He frowned and turned back to her.
"Where did they go?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rapture's Gold"
Copyright © 1986 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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