By Dorothy Garlock

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As stated in a will, well-bred, cosmopolitan Virginia Hepperly will earn the rights to a Wyoming Territory ranch if she spends five years teaching Native American children in the territory. Discovering that her two little stepsisters are being mistreated by their guardians, Virginia takes them with her to begin a new life. But after arriving, she finds that there are those who want to destroy her–and her future. Features a 16-page insert with 30 frontier recipes and home remedies used by characters in the author’s books.



Copyright © 1998 by Dorothy Garlock

All rights reserved.

Cover design by Diane Luger

Cover illustration by Michael Racz

Warner Books

Hachette Book Group

237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017

Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com.

First eBook Edition: April 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-56005-4

A Time Warner Company

Books by Dorothy Garlock

Annie Lash

Dream River

Forever Victoria

A Gentle Giving

Glorious Dawn


Lonesome River

Love and Cherish


Midnight Blue


Restless Wind

Ribbon in the Sky

River of Tomorrow

The Searching Hearts

Sins of Summer



The Listening Sky

This Loving Land

Wayward Wind

Wild Sweet Wilderness

Wind of Promise


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Chapter One

Virginia Hepperly Gray, her stomach churning from the rocking, lurching movements of the stagecoach, sighed with relief when it came to a jerking halt. She patted her dark auburn hair in place, adjusted the hatpin in the crown of her hat, and pulled on her gloves.

The door opened. She took the hand offered by the driver, stepped down and surveyed the huddle of buildings that made up the town of Sweetwater. She had seen quite a few new towns on the way west, but none was as primitive as this. It was all very new to her—this raw, wild, sparsely settled country. But it was just the place for her and the two small girls who followed her from the coach with confused looks on their faces.

"I'm thirsty." The younger of the two whimpered as she had been doing for hours.

The woman controlled her irritation and reminded herself that she couldn't fault the little one for complaining. The children had been under a terrible strain for a year, and it had been only two weeks since they had escaped from their home in the middle of the night. So much had happened to them in such a short time.

"We'll get a drink of water at the hotel … if there is one."

Standing beside her trunks, which had been dumped onto the split-log porch of the unpainted building that served as the stage station, Virginia was aware of the stares of the crowd. Her stylish dark green blouse suit, trimmed with black satin strips around the lapels and the bottom of the skirt, marked her as different from the people lined up to watch the stage come in. Roughly dressed, whiskered men eyed her, but turned away when she sternly returned their inquisitive looks.

A sign on an unpainted building caught her eye. Well! At least this ramshackle town had a hotel.

The girls waited beside the baggage, the younger girl taking refuge behind the older one.

"Cass, you and Beatrice stay here by our trunks while I get someone to take them to the hotel."

"Please call me Cassandra, Virginia. I've told you that I don't like being called Cass. It's something you'd name a dog … or a horse. I'm surprised you allow yourself to be addressed as … Jenny."

"I don't mind in the least being called Jenny."

With a sigh, Cassandra wrinkled her brow and looked disgustedly around at the unpainted buildings, the rutted roadway littered with horse droppings and at the persons who stared at them rudely.

"This is a poor excuse for a town. It isn't at all what I expected."

"It isn't exactly what I expected either, but it's perfect for us. We agreed on that before we set out on this journey. Remember?"

"I understand. They can't extradite us back to Allentown from a territory."

At times Jenny was in awe of this little half sister who at nine years of age had such an adult grasp of their situation. She looked down into the upturned freckled face, exposed to the sunlight by the new blue velvet bonnet with the brim turned back. Both girls had the blue eyes of their mother, who had been their father's third wife, and Beatrice had her blond hair. Cassandra had dark red hair, almost the same color as Jenny's, inherited from their father.

In the course of his three marriages George Hepperly had sired four daughters, all the while longing for a son to take over his shoe business and carry his name into the future. He had been wise with his investments but unwise in his choice of guardians for his children.

When George remarried a year after Jenny's mother died, Margaret had been ten years old and had resented Jenny from the day she was born. On the other hand, Jenny had loved the woman her father married next and had been delighted when her little sisters came along. She had not spent much time with them because she had been educated at a boarding school and had spent summer vacations with her mother's relatives in Baltimore. After finishing school, she had stayed on with an aging aunt and had been unaware of the situation that had developed back home after her father's death until Tululla, George Hepperly's cook for many years, had written to suggest a visit.

"I'm thirsty." Beatrice tugged on Jenny's hand.

"There'll be water at the hotel, sweetheart."

"These unwashed barbarians obviously do not intend to help us with the baggage." Cassandra's voice rang out.

"Shhh …"

"They have no manners," she continued, but this time more quietly.

"That's no reason for us not to use ours."

A man in a black serge suit emerged from the building. His coat was open, showing a gold watch chain stretched across a brocaded vest. His black boots were polished, but dust-covered. The men on the porch parted to make way for him. He eyed Jenny, and then the girls, with a frown before he carefully removed his hat. His hair was jet-black with wings of white at the temples. His mustache was sprinkled with gray and trimmed to slant down on each side of his mouth.

"Mrs. Gray?"

"I'm Virginia Gray." Jenny, annoyed at the irritation apparent in his voice, grew even more so when he so limply shook the hand she offered.

"Alvin Havelshell, ma'am." Steely blue eyes went to the girls standing beside the baggage. "I didn't know you were bringing your children."

"Is there a problem with that?"

"No. It's just that I expected a much older woman … ah … not a young married lady with children."

"Are you objecting to the children?"

"Not at all, Mrs. Gray—"

"Miss Gray. I've never been married." Jenny was a tall woman. Even though she and Havelshell were of equal height, she managed to look down her nose at him and watch his face redden and his lips flatten in reaction.

"It's just that you're not … not what I expected." The frown on his face drew his brows together.

"Where have I heard that before?" Cassandra murmured.

Mr. Havelshell's cold stare caused the child to move slightly behind Jenny.

"I have a copy of my contract with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. My attorney went over it carefully. It specifies nothing about age or marital status. Would you like to see it?"

"That won't be necessary." He spoke curtly and stepped out into the road to motion to the driver of the wagon to pull it up to the station porch. "I've arranged for your transportation out to Stoney Creek. This all yours?" He gestured toward the huge pile of baggage.

"It is. The driver can take it to the hotel. I plan to spend the night there. The children are tired and thirsty, and I'll need to buy supplies in the morning before we go out to Mr. Whitaker's ranch."

"The supplies have been taken care of. A full bill of goods, paid for out of Whitaker's estate as stipulated in the will, is in the wagon. Here, you fellows, help Frank load the lady's trunks." He stepped to the station door as the men came reluctantly forward. "Harvey, bring a bucket of water and a dipper. The ladies are thirsty."

Jenny seethed over the high-handed way he was overruling her wishes but decided not to make an issue of it now.

"How far is it to Stoney Creek?" she asked when she could get his attention.

"Not far. Not far a'tall."

"Considering that it's already afternoon and we're tired from the journey, I'd rather we spend the night in the hotel and have a full day tomorrow to get settled in."

Havelshell came so close to her that Jenny backed up a step. He lowered his voice and spoke in a confidential tone.

"Ma'am, the hotel has been taken over by … ah … ladies of the night. It's not a fit place for you and the young ones."

"He means whores, Virginia," Cassandra prompted in a loud whisper when a blank expression crossed Jenny's face.

"What's whores?" Beatrice's childish voice carried her question to the men loitering nearby. They snickered.

"I'll tell you later." Cassandra took the dipper of water offered and held it while the little girl drank.

"You'll do no such thing," Jenny admonished in a whisper, glancing at the man who stood at the end of the station porch holding on to the reins of his horse. He, like the others, had an amused smile on his face. She shot him a look of dismissal, then swept her flashing green eyes over the other men like a hand, wiping the grins from their faces.

While leading his horse to the water trough beside the station, a dark-haired, clean-shaven man paused, as had every other person on the street, to observe the scene on the station porch. He tilted his head and grinned. If the Indian agent had expected a docile maiden lady to take over Stoney Creek Ranch and Indian school, one he could either bend to his will or scare off, he was in for a surprise. This auburn-haired woman, although slender as a reed, was obviously no spineless creature. She hadn't come all this way to be sent packing because folks didn't want her here. He would bet his bottom dollar on that!

This morning Trell McCall had picked up enough information at the saloon to know that folks in town were pretty worked up about the Indian Bureau bringing in a teacher for the Indian children when they didn't have one for their own kids. It had something to do with old Whitaker's will and his arrangement with Indian Affairs back in Washington. The townsfolk didn't care about that and would be sure to give her the cold shoulder. Their attitude usually wouldn't bother Havelshell in the least. He must have another reason for wanting to get her out of town.

Trell seldom visited the town cradled in the bend of the Sweetwater River, but he was glad he had come this day. The lady was something to see. She was tall, proud, and as handsome as a thoroughbred filly. She reminded him of Mara Shannon, his brother Pack's wife, who had come out of a fancy school in Denver and had taken over the McCall ranch near Laramie. She had tamed the wild, bare-knuckle-fighting freighter and taken his young brothers, Trell and Travor, in hand as well.

Trell stifled a chuckle. From his position at the end of the porch he'd heard every word said. The lady had a mind of her own. She had refused to satisfy Havelshell's curiosity about the children. That was sure to set the busybodies to talking! Not that they needed much of an excuse. The fact that she was the long-awaited teacher for the Indian school was enough.

Havelshell was speaking in low tones to the wagon driver, who was tying his horse to the tailgate. He was stocky with longish hair and a short, curly beard. He peered at Jenny with large dark eyes and she looked boldly back, seeking to evaluate this man with whom she and the girls would be leaving town. It was impossible to judge his age. He could be twenty-five or fifty. She decided that he was nearer to twenty-five when he sprang up agilely into the wagonbed and rearranged the sacks and boxes to make room behind the wagon seat.

"Here you are, little ladies. You'll have a nice easy ride on the feed sacks."

Without asking permission, Havelshell lifted first Beatrice, who let out a frightened yelp, and then Cassandra into the wagon. Both girls were shocked when grabbed by the strange man. Beatrice climbed up onto the grain bags, but Cassandra continued to stand and glare at the man who had put her into the wagon.

"Just sit down, Cassandra." Jenny sympathized with her sister, but there wasn't anything she could do about it now.

"Figured you'd need feed." Havelshell ignored the young girl's obvious resentment and spoke to Jenny, then added, "That is if the chickens haven't been carried off by those thievin'—" He left his words hanging.

"Carried off by animals?"

"No, I mean stolen by the Indians. They'll steal you blind if you don't watch them. They have no sense of honesty, you know. Don't expect the little bastards, oh, sorry, excuse my language, to learn anything. They'll come to school, all right, to see what they can steal. They're a stupid lot. Don't seem to want to catch on to the way decent people live. Don't give them any slack, or they'll run you in the ground. If you find you can't manage them, let me know, and I'll deal with it. They don't understand anything but a strong hand."

Jenny decided then and there that Mr. Havelshell was an arrogant bigot. He continued, speaking in a confidential tone, as if they were the only two people in the world smart enough to understand what he was talking about.

"Just let them know who's boss right off, and watch them like a hawk watches a chicken." He tilted his head toward the wagon. "Frank will see you out to the place. The team and wagon belong out there. I've taken the liberty to lay in what I think it will take to get you started. There's grub, lamp oil, and feed for the chickens. If there's anything you need—send word. We'll run a tab for you here at the store and take the money out of your pay when the Bureau sends it."

"I'll pay for whatever we need with a check drawn on a bank in Laramie. I insist that any communications that come to me from the Bureau remain unopened."

"I don't think you understand, Miss Gray. I'm in charge here." His face reddened angrily.

"I understand perfectly that you are the agent in charge of Indian affairs on the reservation. I am in charge of the school. My contract is with the Bureau in Washington, not with you. I will repeat what I said: any mail that comes to me, personal or from the Bureau, is to be sent out unopened."

She turned her back, dismissing him. She was so angry that she was afraid she would say something she would regret later on. If she had embarrassed him, it was his own fault for bringing up the subject. The idea that he had the gall to suggest he take payment out of her pay! Lordy mercy! She was going to have to work with this arrogant, jackass of a man!

Never in her life had Jenny climbed the wheel of a wagon to reach the seat. She had ridden in farm wagons to the field or on picnics, but always sitting on the tailgate. She gritted her teeth, lifted the hem of her skirt, and placed her foot on the spoke of the wheel. It was easier than she had expected once she grasped the hand of the driver and he pulled her up. She heard something in her skirt rip as she fell into the seat. The driver clicked the horses and the creaking wagon moved away from the station.

Jenny was sure that she had given the men who were lined up along the station wall a glimpse of her legs, but it was of no consequence to her. She had more important things on her mind.

Admitting to himself that he was as bad as the loafers who lingered in the road and in front of the station to gawk at the new arrivals, Trell McCall waited until the wagon left town before he tied his horse and went into the station. Harvey, the station manager was looking out the dirty windowpane trying to get another glimpse of the departing wagon.

"Ain't she somethin'?" He turned and shook his head.

"Who're you talking about?"

"Ah … ya know. The Indian teacher. Too bad, is all I can say."

"Too bad for what?"

"Too bad she come all this way for nothin'. She ain't goin' to last out there. She ain't stout enough fer one thin'. 'Nother thin', what's a city woman like her know 'bout the Shoshoni? Havelshell ort to aput her back in the coach and sent her back to where she come from." He shook his head again. "Folks ain't likin' it that the government sent a teacher to teach the Indian kids when they ain't got no teacher for theirs."

"They could hire one. If I understand it right, it's old Whitaker's money that's paying for this one."

"There's been three teachers here this past year. One even stuck it out for a month. One stayed three days. One kid let loose a jar of ants in his bed, another a hornets' nest in the schoolroom. One of the little devils put a frog in his coffeepot. But when the Perkins boy put a rattlesnake in his desk drawer, he took off like a scalded cat."

"It isn't Miss Gray's fault that folks can't make their younguns behave so a teacher will stay." Trell went to the door to see Havelshell walking back up the street with a group of men, talking and gesturing with his hands.

"Makes no never mind," Harvey was saying. "Folks'll give her a cold shoulder and no help a'tall. She could stay out there and starve, and nobody would lift a hand to help her."

"Not even you, Harvey?" Trell asked.

"Well … yes, but folks'd not like it. Say … a feller was in here askin' 'bout you when ya was here last. Asked if ya was a McCall from over near Laramie. I'd not thought much of it, but he was a stranger and wore two tied-down guns. Don't trust a man, somehow, with two tied-down guns."

"Could've been someone who had seen me over around Laramie."

"He asked where your place was."

"I suppose you obliged him."

"No reason not to."

"Any mail for me?"

"No. You expectin' some?"

Trell ignored the question and went to the door. "I got to be getting on. See you the next time I'm in town."

"I'd look out for that feller, McCall. He might be up to no good."

"I'll do that. Thanks."

Trell stopped at the mercantile on his way out of town. A group of people were gathered on the porch. Two women were among them, and one was commenting loud and long about the teacher for the Indian school.

"It's a cryin' shame that them heathens has got a teacher and our younguns ain't. Wait till I see that Havelshell. Seems like he could've done somethin'."

"We might'a had one if Otis Perkins had taken a board to the backside of that kid of his."

"Hell, the kid was bigger than that little pip-squeak of a teacher. I ain't blamin' the boy for not wantin' to be bossed around by a silk-shirted namby-pamby."

"Law! It ain't decent fer a woman to be out there all by her ownself. Ever' horny drifter in the country will be a makin' a path to Whitaker's place." The woman who spoke took the snuff stick from her mouth, dipped it in her snuff can and stuck it back in the corner of her mouth.

"Harrumph!" another snorted. "Maybe it's what she was lookin' for—coming all this way without a man."

Trell nodded to the men that he knew on the porch and went into the darkened store. He passed the clutter of harness, tools, and leather goods and made straight for the cracker barrel. He took out a handful, stuck one in his mouth and headed for the counter.

"Howdy, McCall. It's been a while since you've been in."

"Not so long. Needed to get my horse shod. Give me a couple cans of peaches, a bag of salt, one of cornmeal, and five pounds of coffee. Grind it in that fancy grinder you got there. New, isn't it?"

"You bet. Ain't it a dandy?" The near-bald clerk had a waxed mustache that twitched when he grinned. "It'll grind that five pounds all at one whack."

"You don't say? Well, load her up and let me see what she can do."

The clerk turned the giant red wheel and the aroma of freshly ground coffee beans wafted up.

"Did you see Whitaker's teacher?" the clerk asked as he poured the ground coffee into a cloth sack.

"Yeah. Nice-lookin' lady."

"That damn Whitaker had everyone fooled. The old son of a bitch had a whole pisspot full of money and gave it all to the damn Indians for a school. Don't that beat all?"

"It was his money. He could do with it what he wanted."

"They say he had three or four little bastards by a couple of Shoshoni squaws. It sure rankled old Havelshell to have the managin' of things taken out of his hands. He only gets to handle this end. He'll get rid of the woman as soon as he can. You can bank on it."

"Why would he want to do that?"

"Guess there's a lot goin' on 'round here you don't know about."

"Guess there is."

"He don't want no strangers nosin' around who could be gettin' word back to the Indian Bureau. He might lose his job." The clerk lowered his voice. "He's got him a good thin' goin'. Big herd of cattle come in every fall to feed the Indians over the winter. Not all them steers make it to the reservation, I'm told."

"That kind of talk is dangerous unless you've got something to back it up."

"I ain't tellin' it to just anybody what comes along."

"Good idea. Tally my bill. I'll pay and be on my way."

Trell picked up his purchases. The crowd on the porch had increased since he had come into the store, and he had to step into the street to pass. Havelshell had joined the group and was trying to soothe the feathers ruffled by the arrival of the teacher for the Indian school. Trell noticed that Havelshell was also enjoying the crowd's rapt attention to every word he said. Trell was tempted to stay and listen, but he wanted to get back home before dark.

The Sweetwater River was high because of the heavy rains in the mountains. Trell traversed it at one of the few rock crossings. His ranch was beyond and upriver from the Whitaker place. Old Whitaker had been dead some time before Trell's move onto the land that he and his brother had contracted to buy, but he had been by the old man's place a time or two. The house was a squat, solid affair. It had good outbuildings and set of corrals. It was right along the edge of the Indian reservation.

His own house was small and tight and set back from the Sweetwater River. Little by little he had added a few furnishings and had built it with plans to add on if the need ever arose. It suited him just fine.

Trell rode through tall grass toward the foothills. From somewhere across the meadow he heard a meadowlark. That song was a sound he had loved since he was a boy.

His thoughts suddenly turned to Virginia Gray. He'd bet that she was a lot like his sister-in-law Mara Shannon. He had caught only a glimpse of flashing green eyes, but he'd seen plainly the set of her stubborn chin and the squaring of her shoulders as she prepared to do battle with Havelshell. Her features, her statuesque figure, and her regal bearing were striking. Yet it was not so much her pretty face that lingered in his memory, but her spirit and her fearlessness. Only a brave woman or a fool would come into this wilderness alone. And he doubted that Miss Virginia Gray was a fool.

He wanted to see her again … close-up. Of course, an educated woman like her wouldn't want anything to do with a rancher who had only a handful of steers and several hundred head of wild horses to his name. Hell, he reasoned, he could still call on her, take her a haunch of deer meat. Be neighborly.

If just half of what he'd heard about Havelshell's dealings at the Agency were true, the lady was going to have a tough row to hoe. All the way home Trell mulled over reasons why he should call on Miss Gray at Stoney Creek, and why he should not.

Chapter Two

The land they were passing through was beautiful, but Jenny was too tired to enjoy it. To add to her tiredness, Beatrice's, "Jenny, I'm hungry," had frayed her nerves to the breaking point.

"How much farther, Mr—?"

"Wilson. But call me Frank." He turned and stared at her for the hundredth time since they left town.

"How much farther?" she repeated the question.

"Ten miles … maybe."

"How far from town?" she asked tight-lipped.

"Twenty miles or more."

"We're only halfway? Mr. Havelshell said it wasn't far."

"'Taint. Hell, some folks have to go a hundred miles to get to town."

"I'll thank you not to swear in front of the children."

"That ain't swearin'. Now if ya want to hear some puredee old hoedown swearin'—"

"I don't."

"What's a high-toned woman like you doin' out here?"

"That is none of your business, Mr. Wilson." The question wiped all traces of politeness from her expression and blunted her speech.

He grinned, showing a row of white teeth. "I'm a beggin' your pardon, ma'am."

"I'm sorry for being short with you. This has been a very trying day. I was hoping to have a conversation with Mr. Havelshell. He is the Indian agent, isn't he?"

"Yes, ma'am. Headquarters is on the reservation 'bout five miles from Stoney Creek. Got a store there for the Indians, but spends most of his time in town. He reads law, you know."

"I was told that. Why is it that I have to buy my supplies in town? Why can't I trade at his store on the reservation?"

"Don't know." Frank wrinkled his brow. "He don't care much for white folks goin' out there. Says it's for the Indians."

The road was really just a trail, probably used by horses more than wagons. The wagon bumped along. Jenny was tired, but there was excitement in her, too. She was going to a new place, and would be doing new things. It never once occurred to her that she would fail to do the job. What she did worry about was keeping the children safe.

Jenny kept her eyes on the land ahead of them, politely refraining from probing questions. She glanced back at the girls. Beatrice had fallen asleep. Cassandra's shoulders drooped, disappointment in every line of her young body. Circumstances back home had robbed her of much of her childish eagerness. She was so bright. She needed stimulation to learn. Jenny had brought material to teach her, but was it enough?

Jenny sighed deeply. This was the best she could do. She consoled herself with the thought.

"What do you do, Mr. Wilson?" she asked, brushing unhappy thoughts from her mind.

"Oh, this and that, I reckon."

"Do you have regular employment?" She stole a surreptitious glance at the holstered gun on his side.

"I work for a rancher over near Forest City."

"Doing cowboy work?"

"Yeah," he said, and grinned again.

The man had been respectful enough—considering his rough ways, but something about him irritated her. Behind the curly brown beard he tried to hide a smirk as if he had a secret he was itching to tell.


On Sale
May 30, 2009
Page Count
496 pages

Dorothy Garlock

About the Author

Dorothy Garlock is the author of more than 50 novels that have sold 15 million+ combined copies and are published in 15 languages. She lives in Iowa.

Learn more about this author