By Emily Krokosz
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Also by Emily Carmichael
Visions of the Heart
Touch of Fire
WARNER BOOKS EDITION
Copyright © 1996 by Emily Carmichael
All rights reserved.
Warner Books, Inc.
Hachette Book Group
237 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Visit our website at www.HachetteBookGroup.com
First eBook Edition: October 2009
Katy O'Connell didn't usually frequent saloons. Not because she couldn't hold her whiskey; Katy had a head for liquor that would have been the envy of any hard-drinking man. And not because she feared for her reputation. The only reputation she truly cared about was her three-year reign as champion of the Willow Bend Fourth of July rifle shoot.
No, the reason Katy avoided saloons was that a saloon was not a ladylike place to rest your bones and wet your whistle, and her stepmother wanted Katy to be a lady, among other expectations. Katy loved her stepmother and most times tried to please her. But not today. Today was a day that deserved whiskey—a drink not to be had in the hotel tearoom up the street. Therefore, she dusted some of the dirt from her baggy shirt, hiked up her trousers over narrow hips, settled her slouch felt hat on her head, and pushed through the batwing doors of the Watering Hole Liquor Emporium.
"Afternoon, Katy," Myrna Jenkins eyed Katy from behind the mahogany bar. The owner's wife looked amazingly like the plump, pink lady who reclined in the mural that decorated one whole wall of the room, the only difference being that Myrna had her clothes on. "Ain't you walkin' through the wrong door, honey?"
"Nope," Katy answered. "Gimme a whiskey."
"Come on, Myrna! I'm parched as a weed in a dry gully."
"You're about as dusty as one, too." She set a glass of pale brown liquid in front of Katy. "What'cha been doin'? Wrasslin' snakes?"
Katy grimaced. "I was chasing that wild mustang and his herd of mares that've been grazing over by our place."
"The mustang won?"
"How'd you guess?"
"Ain't nobody been able to lay a rope on that devil's head, and better'n you have tried, kiddo. Thought your pa warned you off of that horse."
"Pa's not here." Katy took off her hat, scratched at her scalp through the pile of dark braids that were coiled atop her head, and stuck the misshapen hat back on her head. Then she took a deep, grateful gulp of her drink—and sputtered. "This isn't whiskey!"
"Cold tea," Myrna admitted. She swiped at the bar with a rag.
"If I'd wanted tea, I'd be sitting in the hotel tearoom!"
"Not dressed like that, you wouldn't."
Katy's eyes flashed a warning.
"Don't start cussin', kiddo. Don't sound good on a female. You're in a rare pissin' mood today. I ain't seen you like this since you laid out Porky Brinkman for callin' you and your sister squaws. Thought your stepma had finally turned you into a lady."
"I'm rankled, that's all."
"So you bust into town lookin' like a draggletail cowhand?"
"What's wrong with looking like a cowhand?" Katy sighed wistfully and took another gulp of tea. "Pa sure does admire that mustang stallion. Would've been nice if I could've brought it in. He would've been mighty pleased when he and Olivia got back."
"You ain't got enough to do out at your pa's ranch that you got time to run after wild horses?"
"Got nothing to do at the ranch. O1' Jenkins does the thinking, and the hands do the work. Damned useless is what I am."
Myrna shook her head as she refilled Katy's glass of tea. "You don't know when you got it good, kiddo. You got a pa who's middlin' rich, a family what loves ya, and ya live on the purtiest piece o' land between here and Bozeman. You been given the world, and all you can do is spit on it."
"Yeah. Well, maybe I don't want to be given the world. Maybe I want to win it like my pa did. Like my stepma Olivia did."
Myrna answered with a scornful grunt as Katy took another deep swig of tea.
"This stuff isn't bad," Katy conceded.
"Better'n the whiskey Carl serves here."
"That's for sure." Katy gazed morosely into the amber depths of the cold tea for a few moments, then glanced around the room. One other customer, a gray-haired, sunken-cheeked oldster she recognized as a lineman for the railroad, shared the long bar with her. One table was occupied by five men playing poker—the two Hackett brothers, Clive Messenger, Corky Stillburn, and a man she didn't recognize.
"Where is everybody?" she asked Myrna. "All the men in this town swear off booze and cards?"
Myrna huffed contemptuously. "All gone off with gold in their eyes."
"Y'ain't heard? There's gold been discovered up north, up the Yukon river a ways. They're sayin' them streams have more gold in 'em than a henhouse has chicken feed."
She reached beneath the bar and slapped a newspaper down in front of Katy. It was from Bozeman, a week old, and stained with whiskey and coffee. The banner headline blared out the news that gold had been discovered in the Canadian Klondike. Katy scanned the article, which declared that on July 15, 1897, the steamer Portland had docked in Seattle carrying over two tons of gold taken from several tributaries of the Klondike River. A white man, his Indian wife, and her brother had struck gold in their diggings on what was now being called Bonanza Creek. Since then similar strikes had been made on the same creek and others that flowed into the Klondike River and thence into the Yukon.
"A new gold rush," Katy said softly, wonder in her voice.
"Yeah. Every man jack who's got two good legs to carry him up to Dawson is runnin' after that gold. They've been comin' through town on the train all week, and most of Willow Bend has joined 'em. Most of 'em that've stopped in the bar don't know squat about what they need to survive up there. But they all stampede back to the train when the conductor puts out the call."
"Gold!" Katy said wistfully. "Just think. They'll win themselves a fortune."
Myrna snorted. "Most of 'em will win nothing but a place six feet under. Either that or they'll turn back after spendin' their life's savin's on a wild-goose chase. That's a damned rough wilderness they're headed to. My Carl spent a couple 'a summers up there when he was young, and it cured him of any notion of goin' back."
"Pioneers my ass! Fools is what they are. Know-nothing store clerks, bankers, farmers, schoolteachers. I talked to one fella who was goin' with his brother who's a preacher. His brother wouldn't come in the bar 'cause he don't hold with liquor." She made a rude noise. "Met another fella who's a pot salesman. Can you imagine that? A damned pot salesman!"
Katy grinned. "Bet he won't be selling pots after he stakes his claim!"
"He'll be sellin' 'em at the Pearly Gates if he's not careful," Myrna scoffed. "Then there's that fancy cuss over there at the table."
Katy's gaze moved in the direction of Myrna's nod. For a moment she let her eyes rest on the stranger sitting at the poker table with the Hacketts, Clive, and Corky. He wore a well tailored broadcloth suit, fancy polished boots, a silk waistcoat with the chain of a pocket watch looping from the pocket. A black derby hat hung from one corner of his chair back. He didn't look flashy enough to be a gambler or cardsharp, but he was much too citified to be from around Willow Bend.
"Who is he?" Katy asked Myrna.
"Says he's a writer. Came in with the train a couple 'a days ago, and he's been askin' everyone who comes in here all sorts o' questions. Even had a chat with me. Called it an interview. Says he's writin' a story about the dyin' Old West for some newspaper Back East."
"Heard him tell one fella that Willow Bend's a 'treasure trove of local color,' whatever that means."
Katy took a second look at the stranger. He was clean-shaven with closely trimmed brown hair that sprang from his head in thick waves. Not over thirty, Katy guessed. Maybe younger. Broad shoulders and masculine good looks that explained why Myrna's daughter Ruthie, who served drinks in the bar, was hanging over his shoulder giggling whenever he said anything. But then, Ruthie didn't have the sense God gave a chipmunk. All she thought about was men.
"Handsome piece, ain't he?" Myrna asked.
Suddenly the stranger grinned in a way that lit his eyes with roguish humor. His hand reached over and patted Ruthie's backside in a way that made Katy's face grow hot.
"He looks like a libertine to me. You gonna let him do that to Ruthie?"
Myrna shrugged. "Ruthie's a grown woman. She knows what she wants. Besides, he'll be gone afore long. If he had a head on his shoulders, he'd 'a been gone an hour ago. From what I can see, he don't know a thing about playin' poker against the likes of the Hacketts. They been cleanin' 'im out all mornin'."
The stranger scooped the money on the table into a neat pile in front of him. Ruthie clapped and giggled while the Hacketts scowled.
"Doesn't look like they're cleaning him out now."
"No, it don't, do it?"
Clive Messenger slapped the table and stood up. "That's enough fer me. That's the second big pot in a row you pulled in, friend. When your luck changes, it really changes."
"Changed a bit too fast to my way of thinkin'," Jud Hackett grumbled.
Jud's brother Jacob shuffled the cards and rapped them loudly on the table. "We don't tolerate cheatin' around here, boy."
Katy chuckled into her glass of tea as Jacob's words carried to her ears. The Hacketts didn't tolerate cheating only when they weren't the ones dealing from the bottom of the deck.
"Well now, gents," the stranger said. "If I'd been cheating, I'd have won more than two hands, don't you think?" His grin was placating, his voice reasonable and friendly.
The greenhorn fool, Katy thought. Didn't he know when he was being set up?
Jud turned to Clive, who stood watching with a shuttered look on his face. "I think pretty boy was cheatin'. Whadda ya think, Clive?"
Clive backed off from the table. "Uh… maybe. I dunno."
Jacob set down the cards and rolled up his sleeves. "How 'bout you, Corky? You see 'im cheatin'?"
Corky pushed back his chair and got up. "Ain't my fight, boys. Leave me out of it."
"Fight?" the stranger asked. "Nobody's going to fight, gents. We're all civilized men here."
That assumption was a big mistake, Katy mused, holding out her glass for a refill of tea. She was starting to enjoy the show.
"Not only is he a cheat," Jud declared. "He's a pissant yella coward." He reached across to the pile of coins in front of the stranger and pulled the money his way. "He's lucky we don't hang 'im, eh Jacob. Cheatin's a hangin' offense in this town, ain't it?"
"Leastwise it rates a big fine," Jacob agreed with a grin.
"Hold on now, gents. I won that money fair and square. You've got no call to be accusing me of cheating."
Jud stood up. He was big as a bear and smelled twice as bad. The stranger looked uncertain.
"I think we oughta fine 'im, Jacob."
"Maybe we jest oughta hang 'im by his heels and see how much money falls out of those fancy pants of his."
Katy could tell the Hacketts were enjoying themselves. They were like wolves playing with a helpless lamb.
"Wait a minute, boys. This is ridiculous." The city gent got up and pushed his chair back. Katy was surprised that he was almost as tall as Jud. Ruthie faded back and cast an anxious look toward her mother.
"Ooooo!" Jacob cooed. "He's gonna fight us, Jud."
"Just give me what's mine, and we'll call it a day."
Katy wondered if she should fetch the marshal. Probably not. If the law got called in on every barroom brawl in Willow Bend, he'd not have time to eat or sleep.
"You want your money, pretty boy? Come get it. We'll fight you fair and square. One at a time."
The greenhorn's face settled into a hard mask of determination. It was really a very nice looking face, Katy thought. Such a shame the Hacketts were going to mess it up.
"You boys go outside if'n you wanna brawl," Myrna called. "I won't have my place being broke up."
"Hell. Myrna. We're not gonna break up anythin' other than pretty boy, here." Jud pushed aside the table to clear a space. "Come on, pretty boy. Come get your winnings."
The stranger took off his coat, took his pocket watch from his waistcoat and set it aside, and assumed a classic boxing stance. Katy shook her head in pity.
Jud swung. City boy danced nimbly out of range, and was promptly clobbered from behind by Jacob's meaty fist. The greenhorn staggered, shook his head, and—to Katy's amazement—recovered.
"Thought you were going to fight me one at a time," he complained.
"That's right, boy. We'll only hit ya one at a time. Fair enough?"
Jud swung again, and this time connected. The greenhorn had no place to dodge that wasn't in the range of the other Hackett's fists. His own fist lashed out and struck Jud an admirably solid hit on the jaw. Jud staggered back, and Jacob roared forward to wrap the greenhorn in a lethal bear hug. He lifted him off his feet and squeezed. Katy could see the stranger's face growing red as he tried to break Jacob's hold. It was going to be a short fight.
Katy had never cared much for the Hackett brothers. They had sense enough to stay away from her, but several years ago they'd tried to bother her sister Ellen. Katy had come upon the scene and sent the brothers packing with their tails between their legs, and when he'd heard about the incident their pa had made sure the Hacketts didn't dare to bother an O'Connell woman again.
She supposed the Hacketts had their function in the scheme of the world. Like wolves, they picked on the weakest and least fit—witness their cutting out the ignorant tenderfoot like a wolf pack cutting the slowest elk from a herd. Any citified dandy who didn't have the sense to stay away from such trash deserved what he got. Still, the urge to throw her two cents into the brawl was almost irresistible. Katy never had been one who could keep her nose out of other people's business, especially when butting in promised a small bit of adventure.
"Myrna, you got a pistol behind the bar?"
"You know I do."
"Care to loan it to me for a little while?"
"Katy girl, I don't like the look in your eye."
Jacob gave the stranger a final squeeze, then tossed him into the next table, which he hit with enough force to splinter one of the wooden legs. Both brothers grabbed him before he could get up and pulled him roughly to his feet.
"Ah-ah!" Jud scolded Jacob. "One at a time, brother. We promised."
Jacob released his hold on the reeling man's shirt. "Whatever you say, brother. We gotta fight fair."
The greenhorn threw a punch that landed full on Jud's nose. Katy gave the man credit for persistence. He had staying power.
Jud threw the fellow into his brother's arms and cradled his injury. Curses, nasal and bubbling, issued from behind his crimson-smeared hands. "Now you've made me mad, you sonofabitch."
Katy raised an eyebrow at Myrna. "They're going to break up your place. Jud's riled."
With a grimace, Myrna handed over the pistol. "Just try to miss the chandelier," she advised. "It cost Carl three months' profits."
Katy fired into the air. The brawlers froze. Clive and Corky both backed even farther into the corner than they already were. The old lineman at the bar jumped so suddenly he spilled his drink.
Thoroughly enjoying the little drama, Katy blew smoke away from pistol's muzzle.
"You stay outta this… !" Jud's mouth formed around the word 'squaw,' but he didn't have the guts to say it out loud.
Katy merely smiled. "You're a poor sort of a man if you can't beat up one lousy tenderfoot without your brother's help. You too, Jacob. Jud, if you go for that gun of yours, I'm gonna shoot it right outta your hand, along with a couple of fingers. You know I can do it."
Jud spit a wad on the plank floor.
Katy turned her scathing smile on the Hacketts' victim. "Stranger, if you have a brain in your head, you'll hightail it outta here now."
The stranger was quick to act on her invitation. He gathered up his money, then grabbed his coat and watch and gave the Hacketts a jaunty farewell salute.
"We'll be seein' ya around," Jud promised.
"Not if I see you first, gents." He made haste toward the batwing doors, throwing a coin toward Myrna for his drinks. "Thank you, friend," he said as he passed Katy.
Katy laughed, tossed the pistol to Myrna with a wave of thanks, and followed the greenhorn out the door. She ran to catch up to him.
"I'd make better time if I were you."
"What?" he said.
The Hacketts charged out of the saloon like a brace of snorting bulls. Katy whooped with joy and grabbed the stranger's arm. "Let's go, greenhorn!"
They ran together down the dusty street, the Hacketts pursuing. People in the street and on the boardwalk stopped and stared, but no one made a move to interfere. In Willow Bend, a man's fights were his own business.
"Where's your horse?" Katy asked between gasps for air.
"Horse?" the man puffed back. "No horse. Train."
"Do you have a gun?"
If she hadn't been running so hard, Katy would've kicked herself. She should have kept Myrna's pistol. She hadn't realized the Hacketts were quite this riled. Still, the day hadn't dawned when she couldn't defeat the likes of Jud and Jacob without a gun. They rounded a corner, and she skidded to a stop.
"Shit!" The greenhorn bent over and gasped for breath. "They're big suckers, but they're damned fast. They're going to beat the shit out of both of us."
"Nah!" A lamb among wolves, was this one. Not only no brains, but no imagination. Katy untied a coiled rope from the saddle of the nearest horse. "We'll fix 'em. Follow me."
As the Hacketts rounded the corner, she grabbed his arm. They sprinted to increase their lead, then ducked into a shadowed alley that was littered with empty whiskey bottles.
"Keep running down the alley!" Katy told him. "You're gonna be the bait."
Chuckling to herself, Katy made a large slip loop of the rope, laid it across the alley entrance, and faded into the shadows against the wall. Only a dumb Hackett would fall for this trick, she told herself happily.
"They went in there!" she heard Jacob exclaim. "We got the bastard now."
Come on, you stupid jackasses. Katy almost chortled out loud. Her blood sang.
Jud was in the lead as the brothers pelted into the alley. Katy let him pass. Jacob was close behind. When he stepped into the loop of rope, Katy yanked hard. The noose tightened around both his legs. He hollered in surprise before his face hit the dust of the alley. Jud skidded to a stop and sprinted back to aid his brother. He didn't see Katy swing the empty whiskey bottle until too late. It bounced off his skull with a resounding thwack. A split second of surprise sparked in his eyes before they went blank. Katy tapped a slender finger against his shoulder, and he toppled like a felled tree.
"You can come back now," she hollered to the stranger.
The stranger arrived, looking ready to fight. When he saw the two limp Hacketts on the ground, he regarded Katy with amazement. "What did you do to them?"
"Took advantage of how stupid they are," Katy told him with a grin. "If they had a brain between them, I would've had to think of something else."
"You're damned remarkable!"
"Yeah," Katy admitted.
Just then Marshal Fields blustered into the alley. He looked at the greenhorn, at the Hacketts, and at Katy. "You again. Myrna came running over to tell me you was dusting up trouble, and I see she was right." He shook his head, half with amusement, half with disgust.
Fields held up his hand to cut off the stranger's defense. "I know you aren't the culprit here, son." He nodded in Katy's direction. "Whenever this one comes into town, I can count on some sort of a scuffle to keep the day from becoming dull."
"that's not true," Katy said indignantly.
"Most times it is."
"They were cheating him at cards, then jumped him when he won a pot or two."
"So you led them a merry chase down Main Street and coldcocked them both in an alley?"
"Well, someone had to do something!" Katy declared. "They were bound to beat this poor sucker outta ten years of his life."
"Well, I don't doubt that." Fields pulled thoughtfully at his face. "You got a way out of town, mister?"
"I'm leaving on the train in the morning."
"Well, I can dump these two into a cell and let them cool off overnight. But I'll have to let them go in the morning. I wouldn't be anywhere around here, if I was you. These boys have long, nasty memories."
"I'll be gone. Don't worry."
"See that you are. Now you two can help me haul these carcasses off to jail."
When Jud and Jacob were safely locked away, the greenhorn clapped Katy on the shoulder and offered to buy her a drink in thanks.
"You sure you're old enough to drink?" he asked as they headed toward the saloon.
"I'm not going to have your ma or pa collaring me for feeding their kid liquor."
"I'm old enough! Besides, my ma and pa are long gone." Since Katy's parents were on their way to New York with her sister and baby brother, their interference with a little sojourn in the Watering Hole was unlikely.
Myrna greeted them with a raised eyebrow. "You got Hacketts on your tail?"
"Don't worry," Katy said. "They're in jail."
"Yeah, well, who's gonna pay for the damage to my place?"
"How much?" the city gent asked.
"Ten dollars oughta do it."
Katy scoffed. "Five's more like it."
Myrna shrugged. "Worth a'try."
Katy chuckled as the stranger laid five silver dollars on the bar. "You don't know diddly, do ya?"
He grinned. "Enough to get by."
She tugged him along to a table. "More of what I was drinking before," she told Myrna. "And he'll have whiskey. Carl's good stuff."
He chuckled as they sat down. "You're a real pistol, aren't you, friend?"
"Have to be if you don't want folks to stomp all over you. Isn't it the same where you come from?"
He grinned engagingly. "Back in Chicago folks are more subtle when they try to skin you, that's all."
"Chicago! You're from Chicago?"
"That's where my family lives."
"You got a wife and kids back there?"
"No. A mother and sister. I'm a writer for the Chicago Record—that's a big newspaper. I get sent all over the country to do articles, and that doesn't leave me time for a wife. Isn't fair to leave a woman on her own a lot, you know. A man takes on a wife, he ought to take care of her."
Myrna set their drinks down on the table. "If'n you think that, stranger, you're one of the few men who do. I've not met many men who won't take off and leave their wives behind when the notion strikes 'em. Look at all those fools headed up north lookin' for gold."
"That's why I don't feel the urge to marry. I like to go wherever the good stories are. I'm headed north myself."
Katy was instantly consumed with envy. "You're really headed to the Klondike?"
"Yes indeed. Not looking for gold, but writing about those who are." He flipped a coin at Myrna for the drinks, along with a smile that brought a flutter to the woman's lashes. "Thanks, sweetheart."
Myrna simpered. "You just crook a finger if you want any-thin' else."
"I will," he assured her.
Katy snorted. "I figure writing about gold must be about the same as smelling a good steak cooking without getting to eat it."
"Not to me, friend. I'm writing a series of articles on the dying Old West. Might even turn it into a book someday. This new gold rush is right up the line of what I want to write about. Stopped by here to soak up some of the local color. You know, most places out West have gotten pretty tame, settled down to be just as dull and safe as anyplace else. This little town is an absolute treasure of colorful characters and stories, though." He raised his glass in a toast. "The Klondike will be even better."
Katy chuckled. "New to the West, aren't you?"
"I've been out here a couple of months."
- On Sale
- Sep 26, 2009
- Page Count
- 348 pages
- Grand Central Publishing