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A Gentle Giving
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A Time Warner Company
A GENTLE GIVING. Copyright © 1993 by Dorothy Garlock. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
For information address Warner Books, Hachette Book Group, USA, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017
A Time Warner Company
A mass market edition of this book was published in 1993 by Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: June 2001
Visit our Web site at www.HachetteBookGroupUSA.com
He helped her down from the horse.
Buddy was waiting. Smith patted the dog's head and scooped up his hat. He wondered what Willa would do if he grabbed her and kissed her. She'd probably scream her head off. The dog would bite him and Charlie would come charging up the hill.
What the hell? He liked taking a risk when the odds were stacked against him.
With two quick steps he was beside her. His hands closed around her upper arms and dragged her up against him. He lowered his head, kissing her hard. The kiss left her stunned. She couldn't get her breath and for a minute she couldn't think. He held her, gave her a second softer kiss, his lips brushing back and forth across hers before he let her go.
"Why . . . why did you do that?" she whispered.
"To teach you a lesson. Don't trust a man to always play the gentleman. Especially . . . a drinking man. And . . . never, never go off alone with him."
"You want me to be afraid of you?"
"Why not? I'm sure as hell afraid of you."
"The undisputed grand master of the frontier novel."
"The Louis L'Amour of the romance novelists."
—Beverly Hills Courier
Books by Dorothy Garlock
A Gentle Giving
Love and Cherish
Ribbon in the Sky
River of Tomorrow
The Searching Hearts
Sins of Summer
The Listening Sky
This Loving Land
Wild Sweet Wilderness
Wind of Promise
This book is for my friend, Mary T. Knibbe, with fond memories of good conversation, hot butter beans and cornbread.
A faithful friend is a strong defense.
A faithful friend is the medicine of life.
Awakened by the heat beating against her face, Willa leaped from her bed. Flames enveloped the table and the bureau where she kept the pictures of her mother and the few mementos she had managed to save over the years. Suddenly the straw mattress on her bed erupted in a ball of fire.
Over the sound of crackling flames, a murmur of angry voices reached her.
She ran out the door as the fire blaze behind her roared angrily into the workroom where her stepfather made his beautiful clocks.
Was this a dream: the roof ablaze and flames dancing a queer rigadoon against the dark sky?
Willa Hammer faced the angry crowd. Why had they come to the edge of town to fire the little shack she had so lovingly made into a home? A clod of dirt struck her cheek. She cried out in surprise and terror and lifted her hand to shield her face.
"Slut! Spawn of the devil!" The woman who threw the clod had spoken to her just that morning when she had gone to post a letter. She had not been friendly but she had been civil. "It's because of you—"
"We don't want ya here!" yelled another.
"It's evil ya 'n' that deformed monster brought to this town," a man shouted. "Nothin's been right since ya come here."
"Get the hell out of Hublett or . . . we'll tar 'n' feather ya!"
A six-gun, fired into the air, made an unspoken threat clear to even Willa's befuddled mind.
Pelted with dirt clods, she raised her arm to protect her head and turned toward the road. A man with a hickory switch in his hand blocked her way.
"Uppity whore! Whelp of a thievin' murderin' hunchback," he shouted, his sneering face one she would never forget. Willa tried to edge around him, but he caught her nightdress at the neck and ripped it, leaving an arm and shoulder bare. Then he lifted his arm again.
Willa heard the breathy hiss of the switch slicing through the air just before it sent a serpent of flame writhing across her back.
"Ya ain't got no shotgun now."
Unremitting terror engulfed her. This was the man she had turned away a few nights ago when he had come pounding on their door, drunk, and showing off for his friends. He had wanted to know what she would charge for an hour in bed. She had endured the shouted insults until he had attempted to break down the door. Then she had flung it open and faced him with the shotgun. With fear making her stomach roil, though she had been through this many times before in so many towns that she had even forgotten the names, she had ordered him to leave.
"Bitch! Ever since ya come here ya've been lookin' down yore nose at us decent folks." The switch came down on her back again.
In a daze of pain and confusion, she cried out, stumbled, regained her balance and tried to run. Again and again she felt the bite of the switch. The end of the pliable bough curled around her neck and stung her mouth.
Too numb to cry, too frightened to think, she ran to escape the agony of the switch and the clods and stones being thrown by the angry crowd. The light from the fire and the bright moon sent her shadow dancing crazily in front of her as she ran barefoot down the path. She reached the end of the lane to find it blocked by a canvas-covered, high-wheeled, heavily constructed wagon. Unsure what to do, she paused.
When a stone, thrown harder than any of the others, hit her in the middle of her back, the pain forced a scream from her lips. She staggered and grabbed the wagon wheel to keep from falling to her knees.
"Up here, girl! Quick!"
She had no idea who was on the other end of the hand that was extended to her. She grasped it gratefully, placed her foot on a thick spoke and was pulled up onto the seat. The instant she was in the wagon, a long whip snaked out and stung the backs of the mules.
"H'yaw! Hee-yaw!" The driver shouted at the team as he cracked the whip over their backs. The wagon lurched forward. It made a wide loop and headed for open country.
"Papa! Wait for Papa and Buddy—" Willa cried.
"Too late fer yore pa, girl. They already hung 'em."
"No! Oh, God—"
Then in the wavering light of a bonfire, she saw the body of Papa Igor hanging from a tree in a grove between their house and town. His shirt had been torn away. The white skin on the large hump on his back shone in the light from the fire. His head, oversized in proportion to the rest of his body and covered with thick dark hair, was tilted back as if he were looking at the heavens above.
There, abandoned and lifeless, was the only person in the world whom she loved and who loved her. The scene was burned into Willa's mind.
There is a time when a human being has taken all that can be endured, a time when strength and logic are burned away. This was that moment for Willa Hammer. The physical pain was so intense it was scarcely to be borne, but within her the awareness of her loss seared far more deeply.
She screamed, and screamed, and screamed.
It was the cry of a soul in agony, a sound most of the crowd would never forget. It pierced the cool night air, shattering the silence. Those who heard it said that it was not a human sound. It was as if a cold, desolate wind swept down from the mountains, raking the crowd with fingers of ice, chilling and awesome.
As the screams died away, a sorrowing voice spoke from among the hushed throng standing in front of the burning shack.
"Dear God. What possessed us to do such a terrible thing?"
But it was too late for regrets. The deed was done.
* * *
"What the . . . hell!"
To the west in the Bighorn Mountains, Smith Bowman, startled out of a half-sleep, dropped the empty whiskey bottle on the ground and leaped to his feet. Screams, wordless, terrified, unearthly screams blasted the silence. They filled every crevice of the mountains and sent a shiver of terror all through him.
The screams stopped suddenly and all was quiet again.
Smith shook his head to clear it and raked his fingers through his hair. He must be drunker than he thought. The cries he'd heard were only a cougar's mating call, but he would have sworn they were a woman's primal screams of grief.
An hour earlier he had awakened abruptly from a tortured sleep and reared up out of his bedroll, his eyes wide open, his face drenched with sweat, his hands reaching. A wave of sickness had washed over him, as it did each time the nightmare forced him to relive the horror of that dreadful day. Would he ever forget the pleading look in Oliver's eyes as he had reached for his hand just before . . . just before—
He had just coaxed sleep back again when the shrieking had begun. Smith's shaking fingers again combed through his thick blond hair before he pulled another whiskey bottle from his saddlebag. He took a long swallow, then cradled the bottle in his two hands. When he was a boy, he had yearned for nothing more than to have a horse of his own. When he had been left alone after his family had been lost in a flash flood, he had wanted nothing more than to see another human face. Then when he had gone to Eastwood, he had had a desperate desire to belong. Now, all he wanted was to be free of the invisible chains of guilt.
A tear slipped from the corner of Smith Bowman's eye and rolled slowly down his cheek.
Dear God, would it ever end? It had been six long years since Oliver's death—and guilt still clung to his back like a leech.
He drank from the bottle again. This was all the whiskey he had to last him until he reached Byers' Station. He would stop there and buy more before he crossed the river and headed for Eastwood Ranch.
He lay back down on his bedroll. Long ago he had developed an awed affection for the Bighorn Mountains, marveling at their trickery, their beauty, their valleys and their towering trees. Tonight they wore a crown of a million stars. Smith watched the shadows and listened to the sounds of the forest, wondering if there were another human being in the world who felt as desperately alone as he did.
In a few days he would cross the Powder River. Smith hated crossing a river, any river, even one he had crossed dozens of times. The damn river was a greedy bitch. If given half a chance, she would gobble him up.
Even after so many years, each and every time he came to a waterway, be it a creek or a river, he was a little boy again standing on the bank of a swollen, roliing river watching the wagon that had carried him whirl in an eddy, then crash against the rocks. He had been thrown out and had managed to cling to a boulder until he'd been pushed to the bank by his father, who then had rushed back into the relentless river in an attempt to pull his mother and sister from the wagon.
He would never forget the sight of the huge wall of water descending on his family like a great gray mountain. It rolled and thundered. Smith had seen his father swept up and carried to the top of the wall before it had crashed down on him, and he and the wagon had been lost from sight.
In a wild panic Smith had run along the bank for miles, searching, hoping, praying that his parents and sister were still alive. Then he had found the body of his little sister caught in the branches of a tree whose limbs protruded out over the water. Carrying her lifeless body, he had stumbled down along the river until he found the body of his mother and dragged her up onto the riverbank.
As fast as it had risen, the raging current had abated. It had narrowed to a river once again and then a stream. Smith had stood beside his mother and sister and sobbed.
"Papa! Papa!" He had called until he could call no more. He had staggered drunkenly along the riverbank straining to see a sign of his father. At last he had to give up and return to the lifeless bodies on the bank.
He had kept his vigil all night, all the next day, and through the following night, hoping his father had somehow saved himself. The following morning, weak from two days without food, he had scooped out a single shallow grave on the riverbank with a piece of birch bark and buried his mother and sister. A stolid sort of daze was on him. Sobbing without tears, he carried rocks and heaped them upon the grave.
While searching for stones, he found a fish flopping in a puddle where it had been stranded when the water went down. He killed it, skinned it with his pocketknife and, having no way to build a fire, ate it raw, gagging on the first few bites.
Smith had no clear remembrance of the next days. He had headed north along the riverbank until he had come to the dim trail his father had been aiming for when they had crossed the river. Doggedly he followed it. His all-consuming interest was in finding something to eat and shelter for the night.
Days passed with agonizing slowness. His stomach cramped with hunger pains. With his pocketknife he fashioned a crude bow and arrow, using his shoelaces for the bowstring. He sat for hours beside what he thought was a rabbit run. When he missed the first time, he sobbed with frustration. The second time he was successful. In later years he credited that small animal with saving his life.
One morning he awakened to the smell of meat cooking. He lay for a while wondering if he was dreaming. The tantalizing smell wafted over him again. Jumping to his feet, he ran staggering through the underbrush toward the delicious aroma. He had not seen a human being in weeks. He prayed that whoever had the means to build a fire and cook meat would not leave. Weakened by near starvation, he ran, stumbled, fell and picked himself up to run again, not caring whether he might be rushing to meet an Indian who would scalp him. At the edge of a clearing, Smith tried to stop, staggered again, and struggled to recover his balance by grabbing a branch. It broke with a loud crack.
Startled, the two men at the campfire turned quickly toward him. They stared in amazement at the lad, whose hollow eyes burned in a gaunt face. The clothes on the thin body hung in rags.
"Godamighty, Billy, it's a white boy!"
The man who spoke was big, taller than Smith's father. He had a head of thick white hair, a hawk nose and piercing blue eyes under heavy dark brows.
"Gee whillikers!" The husky, whispery sound came from the other man, who was small, bowlegged, and heavily whiskered.
"Son, what are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere? Where'd you come from?" The white-haired man asked in a deep, puzzled tone.
"Tennessee." Smith's voice was hoarse from disuse and sounded to him as if it were coming from someone else.
"Tennessee? That's a fair piece."
"It ain't no hoot 'n' a holler." The whiskered man leaned down to turn the meat sizzling in the skillet.
"Where's your folks?"
Kindness and understanding warmed the man's eyes as he studied the worn boots, the ragged clothes and the thin, starved look on the boy's face.
"Are you hungry, son?"
A look of sympathy came over the man's face. "What's your name?"
"Bowman. Smith Bowman." Again his voice sounded strange as did the other voices after his days of listening to crows and the screech of soaring hawks waiting to pounce on a careless rabbit or field mouse.
"Come on up to the fire, Smith Bowman. My name is Oliver Eastwood. This is Billy Coe. Most folks call him Billy Whiskers. Billy, dish up a plate of food for our guest."
"Howdy-do." Smith shook hands with each of the men before he squatted down beside the fire. "I'm obliged, but I don't want to run you short."
"We'll not run short. Coffee?"
"Yes . . . please."
Smith stared down at the plate of bacon, potatoes and eggs. Then he began to eat. Each bite brought on a ravenous desire for more. Before he realized it, the fork was making faster trips from the plate to his mouth.
"It's best to go slow if you haven't had much to eat lately," Oliver Eastwood suggested kindly. "How long have you been alone?"
"A week or two. Maybe three."
Smith put his fork down. Already what he had eaten was tormenting his stomach. Suddenly he was violently sick. He got up and stumbled into the bushes. Holding tightly to a small sapling, he bent over and retched. He cried, unable to stop the tears that flooded his eyes and washed down his cheeks. When he finished retching, Oliver Eastwood was there beside him offering comfort. He put his arm across the boy's shoulders and drew him to him. Smith turned his face into the man's shirt and sobbed his grief.
"Cry, son. You've earned it. Cry all you want, then we'll go home."
Smith remembered feeling safe for the first time in weeks as he stood within the shelter of the big man's arms. He was no longer alone in that vast emptiness. He was not made to feel ashamed for his tears. From that day forward he had devoted himself to Oliver Eastwood, a devotion that had lasted fifteen years.
As always, one thought brought forth others. He remembered the first time he had seen Oliver Eastwood's home. It looked like a fairy castle backed up to the green of the mountain. Large white pillars extended to the upper porch, long narrow windows reached to the floor, and a double glass door dominated the front of the house, the likes of which he had not seen since leaving Tennessee. It was a real Southern mansion with a tree-lined drive and a white picket fence. Behind it, instead of the slave cabins usually found behind such a house, was a network of corrals and a long bunkhouse attached to a variety of other buildings. Smith had been awed into silence, scarcely able to believe that Oliver Eastwood had said, "We'll go home." Did he mean that he could call this magnificent house his home?
That first night in the bunkhouse he had drifted off to sleep with a feeling of security, hearing the low voices of Billy Whiskers and the other men. But in the night he had had dreams of the rolling, muddy river and had awakened sweating and thrashing. Oliver Eastwood was standing over him and behind him was the figure of Billy Whiskers.
"You're all right, Smith. You're safe here. Billy will be close by. I came out to see how you were doing and heard you cry out. Go back to sleep. You're not out there in the night alone."
He had gone back to sleep and slept soundly the rest of the night, but when morning came the dream was still with him when Oliver came to take him to the house.
Smith would never forget standing beside the kitchen door and listening to Mrs. Eastwood's shrill, angry voice and Oliver Eastwood's quiet one trying to persuade his wife to let him be a part of the family.
"Get that little bastard out of my house. I'll not have him here."
"The boy has no place to go, Maud."
"This ain't no catch-all for every stray that comes down the pike."
"His folks were drowned—"
"What the hell do I care about that? Lots of folks drown. Get him out!"
"Is this my house or not?"
"Of course, it's your house."
"I don't want him here."
"All right, Maud. He can stay in the bunkhouse with Billy."
"Why do you want him? Ain't me and Fanny good enough?"
"What a ridiculous thing to say. You're my wife. Fanny is your daughter—mine now. The boy being here won't change that."
"He'd better not be hanging around Fanny. I'll take a horsewhip to him."
"He'll not bother Fanny," Oliver said firmly. "And he'll not bother you. But I'll tell you this, Maud. That boy will have a home here as long as he wants to stay. You'd better understand that."
Tears had blinded him as he had listened to this unseen woman reject him. He hadn't seen that Oliver had returned until the big man had put his arm about his shoulders.
"I'm sorry you had to hear that, boy. Women folk get crazy notions sometimes."
As time went by, Smith and Oliver became constant companions. Oliver spent more and more time outside the house. Smith grew to be a man at Oliver's side, neither wanting nor needing anyone but Oliver and Billy Whiskers and the magical world that was Eastwood Ranch.
Smith had been at Eastwood a week before he even saw Fanny, Oliver's stepdaughter. The men in the bunkhouse had talked about her and Mrs. Eastwood, but the first sight of her was one he would never forget. She was about the age of his little sister. He thought she was the prettiest thing he had ever seen.
Fanny had been dressed in white with a pink sash tied about her waist, reddish-brown curls falling down about her shoulders and a face so white it looked as if it had never known sunshine. Fanny stood with her arm wrapped around a porch pillar, gazing off toward the mountains. When he passed near, as he had to do to pick up a shovel he had left behind, he raised the brim of the old felt hat Billy Whiskers had found for him. The girl stared at him with hostile eyes and poked out her tongue. Then she went back into the house and slammed the door.
Mrs. Eastwood, according to snatches of talk he heard in the bunkhouse, had lived on a homestead with her first husband. When Oliver Eastwood came west, he was as green as grass. When he wandered out into the Bighorn Mountains, he was thrown from his horse one day and would have died if not for Maud's husband, who found him and took him home. Maud set his broken leg and nursed him back to health. The nester died soon after and Oliver married Maud, who had no idea the greenhorn she married was a wealthy man.
Oliver built a fine home on his land for his wife and stepdaughter. Then he began to concentrate on building a herd of Texas longhorn cattle. The animals were of a nervous temperament and had pugnacious dispositions. They would run away from a horseman with the speed of the wind, but if a person were unhorsed, they would attack him in an instant.
Thinking back on it all, Smith took another drink from the bottle and wondered for the thousandth time why Oliver Eastwood, an educated, kind man, had wanted to raise the wild, unpredictable cattle and why he had married a shrew like Maud, who over the years had become more belligerent, more unreasonable and more demanding.
Smith dragged his hand over his unshaven face. He was tired. It had been a long trip down to Denver, and although he had left the city days ago, he was still a long way from home. One thing was sure. Fanny, who now insisted on being called Francine, wouldn't be coming home. The damn bitch! He could wring her blasted neck. If she had answered her mother's letters, it would have saved him the trip. He wondered how the old lady would take it.
Smith felt old. He was caught by what he could never forget. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life reliving the pleading look in Oliver's eyes, then the flash of mortal fear just before the end.
He reached for the bottle. Guilt ripped into his soul like a barb. He would give half his life for the chance to relive that one day.
Willa lay on the pallet and listened to the creak and groan of the wagon, her heart shriveling within her. To the aching loneliness, the bitter sense of loss, was added the guilt of not having stayed to bury her loved one. Her grief had been wild and noisy before blessed blackness had enfolded her in its arms.
She felt calmer now; the storm of grief had abated for a little while, but the humiliation of being whipped and stoned was like a hungry dog gnawing at her pride. Words spoken by a preacher long ago came back to haunt her. He had said that when a sinner died, he would roast in everlasting hell—but he had failed to mention that the sinner's torment began in this world. It was her fault, someone had said. She had sinned. She must have sinned or God would not have punished her in such a cruel way.
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2001
- Page Count
- 384 pages
- Grand Central Publishing