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Falling Rock, Colorado Late October 1888
"I'm not one to go without a woman for long, missy."
When Honor McCall had first heard her uncle say those words, she'd been sitting beside him in the wagon on the drive from the farm to the cemetery in nearby Falling Rock. She'd trembled then. Now, standing at Aunt Harriet's grave and digesting what Uncle Lucas must have meant, she realized she'd never stopped shaking.
She did not want to marry her late aunt's husband. If only the God that Aunt Harriet had told her about would provide her with a means of escape.
Although her aunt had been a Christian all her life, Lucas wasn't allowing a funeral service. There was no one to attend the burial because only the grave diggers knew about the death. It was surprising that Lucas had driven Honor to the cemetery to watch the men dig the hole. Knowing him, that was more than she'd expected.
As the diggers lowered the crude, wooden coffin into the ground, Honor saw a flash of gray behind a group of trees. In a moment, it became a young man in a gray suit, coming toward them, and she knew she'd never seen him before.
Her heart knotted. Lucas would not be pleased by this turn of events.
The stranger had thick brown hair and broad shoulders that reminded her of Lucas. Though her uncle was at least twenty years older, both men were tall and well built. But the young man's clothes looked spotless, and he held what appeared to be a black Bible in one hand and an umbrella in the other. While Lucas, also in a gray suit, had liquor stains down the front of his jacket, and he gripped a half-empty whiskey bottle as though it were glued to his right hand.
Dreading a confrontation, Honor wished the young man would just go away. At the same time, she hoped he would stay. There was something in his presence that made her feel safe.
She'd been so overwhelmed by the death of her aunt, she'd hardly noticed the weather. Now she felt the nip of a fresh norther that had just blown in. Dark clouds gathered, and an icy wind stirred the pines that surrounded them. Her shivers deepened.
When the younger man reached the graveside, Lucas glowered at him. "What do ya think you're doing here, mister?"
"My name is Jethro Peters, but my friends call me Jeth. I'm just visiting here in Falling Rock. I live over in Hearten. I'm the pastor there, and when the diggers told me someone died, I came to see if I could be of help."
Lucas studied the minister, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging slack, the way it always did when something unusual happened to him. After a moment, his thick eyebrows drew together. His face turned red, and a crease appeared in the center of his forehead.
"Your kind ain't welcome here," he said, his voice rough and gravelly. "We don't need no preacher."
"Yes, Uncle, we do." Honor could hardly believe she'd found the courage to speak up. She knew she could be beaten for her words, but for her aunt's sake, she'd had to say what was in her mind.
Lucas scowled. "What did you say, girl?" "I said that we need a preacher here today"at least, I do." Her voice was hardly more than a whisper. "Aunt Harriet was a Christian, and she would have wanted someone to say a prayer over her grave and read from the Good Book."
"I would be glad to do it," Jeth Peters said softly, "if you will allow it, sir."
Honor expected Lucas to curse the preacher and drive him away, but strangely, he kept silent for a few moments, staring at the younger man. Then he looked down at his dirty black boots. "All right," he mumbled. "Say what you have to and read from that there book you got. Then git. I ain't never had no use for do-gooders."
Jeth Peters nodded. In a clear voice, he read from the Bible. When he finished, he said a prayer.
The Bible reading sounded strange to Honor's ears, but the prayer made her feel warm all over. She longed to say "Amen" loud enough for her uncle to hear, but decided against it. One more word could set Lucas off, and that might embarrass the minister.
Rain started to fall before the diggers had finished covering the grave.
The minister opened his black umbrella and offered it to Honor. "Here," he said. "We wouldn't want you to catch a cold."
Honor shook her head. "I couldn't take your umbrella, sir, but thank you for offering. And thank you for coming today. I'm sure it was just what my aunt would have wanted."
The preacher's wide smile lifted her spirits for an instant. Then thoughts of what Lucas might do to her at home washed away those good feelings.
"Will you take my umbrella if I stand under it with you?" the young man asked.
Stand under it with him? He obviously had no idea how dangerous such an act could be for her. The young minister couldn't know that Lucas would never allow her to stand close to any man, especially a man of the cloth. But defiance suddenly gripped her.
To her own surprise, she lifted her head and said firmly, "Yes. I would be happy to share your umbrella with you. It is kind of you to ask."
Lucas took a swallow of whiskey from the bottle without comment. She wondered if he was aware of what had been said. Or was he too drunk to have really taken in what was going on? No matter, sooner or later, he would insist that Honor pay for the things she'd said and done here today, of that she was certain. She shivered again.
Jeth stood under a spreading pine, watching as the young woman and her drunken companion climbed into the wagon. She'd called the man Uncle. Other than that, Jeth hadn't learned anything about them. Still, he wanted to know more, especially about her.
Her eyes were honey brown, fringed with long dark lashes, and her skin was as pale as alabaster"and flawless. So was her softly rounded figure, in his opinion. Her hair had been hidden under a cotton bonnet, but a few dark auburn curls had escaped"enough for him to know that her hair was long and probably very soft to the touch. And she'd smelled as sweet as rosewater. His experience as a pastor had taught him to notice things about people that other folks might miss"like the fact that the young woman's face, despite all its beauty, didn't contain any laugh lines.
It wasn't surprising that a deep sadness appeared to encase her; her aunt had died. But Jeth wondered if perhaps joy wasn't something she knew very little about"even in the best of times.
Was she married? Betrothed? He hadn't had such thoughts about a woman since before he met his late wife".
Jeth glanced away. A lump now dwelled in his throat as well as his heart. Pain, sudden and strong, blocked out everything. When he glanced back, the wagon had disappeared beyond a clump of pine trees.
* * *
In the four-room cabin Honor called home, the stale odor of alcohol surrounded her. Aunt Harriet had always kept the place clean and neat, but no matter how often she'd scrubbed the pine floors, Lucas had always found a reason to complain.
Honor glanced at the black iron skillet, hanging over the cookstove. The tears that she'd been holding in all day spilled down her cheeks. Quickly, she wiped them away. Memories of her aunt standing in front of the stove, cooking for her family with that very skillet saturated her mind.
Her gaze traveled to the door of the room Aunt Harriet had shared with Lucas. He was in there now"passed out on the bed, if she was lucky. Dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief, Honor straightened her back. Lucas could come in here at any moment, but he wouldn't find her crying"not ever. It had been heartbreaking to say goodbye to Aunt Harriet, but now Honor's strongest emotion was a desperate fear"fear of being alone in the house with Lucas.
He had started to look at her in peculiar, leering ways shortly after her fifteenth birthday. She'd managed to stay out of his presence and avoid his attention most of the time. But what would happen now that her aunt wasn't here to protect her?
At that moment, Lucas tottered out of the bedroom on shaky legs, eyeing the table and the whiskey bottle in the center of it. Holding the back of a kitchen chair for support, he reached for the bottle, tipped it back as he drank. Then he wiped his wet mouth with the back of his hand.
He'd started drinking before breakfast that morning. Now, he reeked of whiskey"even his sweat seemed to give off fumes.
Standing in front of the stove, trying to appear calm, Honor thought about Lucas and his lustful glances through the years. She knew she would only encounter worse in the future. She was like a caged animal searching for a way out.
Lucas glared at Honor. "After what happened at the cemetery today, you owe me for not beating you the minute we came in the house."
She looked at his big hands. A shudder ran down her spine. His hands were strong and deeply tanned from the Colorado sun.
His face was bronzed, too, and with his high cheekbones and straight nose, some would still call him handsome, though his thick brown hair had thinned on top.
Some would call him successful also, since Lucas knew farming. Honor gave him his due in that regard. Yet when she looked at him, all she saw were a rough, unshaven face and bloodshot, blue eyes, with a twisted malevolence lurking behind them.
"Your aunt was sick for six months before she died, and I ain't had no woman since she took to her bed," Lucas began ominously. "But I aim to do the right thing by you. So we'll drive into town in the morning and get hitched. But not by no preacher. Don't even ask."
Lucas studied Honor's face"like a bobcat with a rabbit in its sights. "You're willing to marry me, ain't ya, girl?"
Never! Honor's mind screamed, but she swallowed. "Yes, Uncle," she said softly.
"And from now on, call me Lucas. It ain't fittin' for my future wife to call me Uncle."
"Very well, Lucas."
When he slammed the empty bottle on the kitchen table, it shattered. He laughed. "You've lived here for free long enough," he said. "It's time you paid for your keep. Now, pick up them broken pieces of glass."
She wanted to shout at him, to tell him she would never marry him. Never! She would yell and scream and fight to her last breath before she'd let him touch her. But she bit her lower lip. What good would yelling do? Lucas was big and powerful, and he had no mercy in him. Her only chance was to escape from him.
Honor took the broom from its place beside the woodstove. Sweeping up the tiny bits of glass, while he looked on, she made her decision. She would run away at the first moment of opportunity that she saw. In his drunken state, Lucas might not notice that she was gone for a while.
"Now," he demanded, "fix me my supper."
"I'm" I'm out of potatoes for the stew, Uncle," she said, feigning a light tone. "I'll need to go out back and get some."
"Then be quick about it. I'm hungry."
Honor still wore her best dress, the tan one she'd worn to the burial. When she wrapped her shoulders in her brown woolen shawl and pulled on her brown and yellow print bonnet, she snatched the vegetable basket from the shelf by the back door.Without another glance at Lucas, she went out.
The root cellar was to the right of the garden. If he was watching now, when his mind cleared Lucas would remember that she had turned in the opposite direction. Honor prayed he wouldn't notice. Walking, then running, toward the wooded area behind the house, she discarded the basket as she fled.
The cool October air smelled of nuts and pinecones. The wind murmured through the bare branches of the trees, tossing the soft curls around her face. Below her bonnet, her long auburn hair blew every which way.
Honor darted a fearful glance behind her. Nothing moved. She slowed her pace, tying the ends of her knit shawl in a knot. The soft garment did little to shield her from the slicing breeze, but it was better than no covering at all.
By the time Honor reached the turnoff that led into town, her breath was coming in deep gasps. She knew better than to stay on the road. If Uncle Lucas had a shred of wits about him, he would look for her there first. Besides, she couldn't take the chance of being spotted. Travelers moved along the road all the time. Her best bet, she decided, was to follow a line of trees.
Darkness had painted the sky a grayish-black by the time she arrived in Falling Rock. The bare trees looked like skeletons in the dim light of three street lamps. It was late enough that all proper folk were off the streets. The only men and women in public now would be those inside the Silver Nugget Saloon on the corner"or those standing outside that establishment. Honor skirted around and behind the saloon, making her way toward the church. Her aunt had told her that the building was kept open day and night. She would be safe there.