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Prairie Roses Collection Book 7
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
Fort Laramie, Wyoming, Sept 1878
Kate Benton, daughter of a saloon floozy, runs away days before her official introduction into that sordid life, straight into the arms of Tom McBride, fleeing from his outlaw brother’s past. Can these two young people, damaged and labeled by life experiences, tear down the walls of guilt and mistrust that separate them? Will they allow God to change them forever from the inside out? Or are they destined to remain alone forever?
September 28, 1878
Fort Laramie, Wyoming Territory
“Married couples only. Kids are fine, too.” The grizzled wagon train leader peered at the man standing before him. “You got a wife?”
The lanky stranger shook his head and laughed. “No, sir. Just lookin’ for a train headin’ west. Meetin’ up with family in Oregon.” He spat on the ground. “Why families only?”
“They cause less trouble. Don’t mess around with someone else’s wife. Don’t get drunk in every watering hole along the way. And me and the missus prefer it. Good enough for you?”
“Yes, sir. Your train, your rules.”
“Should be another along in a month or so. Different leader, p’raps different ways.”
“That’ll be fine. Got enough to tide me over.”
“If’n you find the love of your life today and wed her, come talk to me again. We pull out tomorrow morning, after the sunrise service.”
“Church on a train? That’s a new one on me, too.”
The older man smiled. “Like I said. Different leader, different rules. It’s the Lord’s Day, and I’ll not start without His approval.”
When the two men parted, Tom McBride stepped out of the shadows afforded by the covered boardwalk.
Where would he find a bride in less than twenty-four hours?
He glanced around. The fort was rough and tumble. Women were scarcer’n hen’s teeth.
Why would a woman be attracted to him?
All he offered was an outlaw brother and a bounty on his own head.
He could follow in the train’s dust. Hope the leader didn’t mind a straggler. Didn’t run him off.
Because nobody trusted a man on his own.
With the law breathing down his neck, he needed to make some other change in his appearance. The wound on his cheek caused by a bullet that got too close was a dead giveaway. Any chance of outrunning the news faded with yesterday’s sunset. Already Laramie was abuzz with talk of the stagecoach robbery and the missing gold.
And the dead and wounded.
He strode toward the saloon, his home for this last night. Rather than risk somebody recognizing him, he tucked his chin to his chest, passed the bar, the card tables, and the women, and headed upstairs. On the balcony, he paused and surveyed the room below.
In the corner, near an out-of-tune piano and the fat man playing it, huddled a woman-child. Red hair in ringlets down her back. Flashy dress cut too high on her shapely thighs. Chest not quite filling out the hand-me-down floozy outfit. A nymph in training? Hard to tell for certain. She didn’t make eye contact. No men went up to her. Probably window dressing.
He chuckled. His mama used to say fiery hair was a sign of a rebellious spirit. Well, if that was true, this girl had a whole lot of misery ahead of her. Best to steer clear.
He headed for his room, then propped a chair against the door once inside. This establishment was rowdy, and he didn’t want a drunk bursting in like last night.
He needed a good night’s rest. He was heading out tomorrow.
Nothing—and nobody—was stopping him.
* * *
Kate Benton kept one eye on the man leering at her from across the saloon and the other on the clock behind the bar. She was off duty in ten minutes. Just one more shift to make it through, then tomorrow—well, tomorrow she’d have another set of worries.
Just not the nagging fear of being dragged into her mother’s line of work. No, despite the brothel owner’s promise—or threat—she wouldn’t be here for that.
She exhaled, taking care not to puff up her bosom too much, drawing attention where she wanted none. Three days until her sixteenth birthday. Three days until she became a real woman, as Clem called it.
Three days until her already painful life turned into a living hell.
Which was why tonight was so important. She’d receive her month’s wages. Two dollars. Enough to get far away before Clem discovered her gone. If she didn’t go now, she’d have to wait another whole month. Besides, she was certain Clem wouldn’t wait out their agreed-upon time.
She had every reason to leave. Everything changed with her mother’s passing two days ago. Elsie, strong but loving, often filled her head with stories of things that would never be. Not for them, at least. Stories of leaving this place and heading for Denver. The mountains. Perhaps even Oregon or the Pacific Ocean.
Visions that sustained her during the long, lonely hours in her broom closet space. Hope that occupied her thoughts during the day and colored her dreams during the nights while her mother worked. And promises that accompanied Mama’s early morning visits. Soft whispers and tender touches in Kate’s tiny sleeping area at the end of the hall. Inhaling the sweet-pungent scent of lily of the valley perfume used to cover the scents from her work the night before. Yet always cheerful, despite the dark circles beneath her eyes.
With Mama’s passing, she had no more stories to sustain her. With her absence, she had no excuses to avoid Clem’s insistence that she take her mother’s place. Mama’s death meant she was now devoid of any friend or family to protect her from the inevitable.
Kate pulled her mind back to her plans. Her satchel, already packed with her few meager belongings, waited under the cornhusk mattress in the closet upstairs.
She didn’t know where she was going. Or how she’d get there. Only thing she knew for sure was she wouldn’t be here in the morning.
And not in three days, neither.
A shadow fell across the table, and she gasped. Had she run out of time? Out of luck?
She looked up. Clem. She offered him a half-smile.
He grunted, then slapped coins on the scarred wooden surface. “See you tomorrow night. Ready for work. And shove a rag into the front of that dress to draw the customers.” He winked at her. “And if’n you want to, you know—” He quirked his head to the landing above. “Start early?”
She’d like to stuff something in his—instead, she swept the money into her palm, nodded, and stood. “Sure, Clem. I’ll let you know.”
The lie slipped off her tongue like rain from a duck’s back. When had she become so adept at untruth?
He gave her space, and she trotted to the stairs, passing a drunken couple on the way. Her nose wrinkled at the stench of alcohol, cheap perfume, and unwashed bodies. While she had but a single change of clothes apart from this skimpy outfit, she kept it— and her body—clean. Her shirtwaist cuffs and collar were frayed, and the skirt faded with washings, but she wasn’t one of those girls. Forced to service countless customers in a night, without hardly five minutes of peace in between.
In her tiny room, behind the closed door, she slipped out of the floozy outfit and tossed it into a corner. Thankfully she wouldn’t need that ever again. She donned her blouse and skirt, snatched her bag, and headed down the hallway. Below, Clem glanced up. She tucked her belongings close to her off side, smiled at him again, and mouthed the word privy. He nodded and turned back to his customers.
She skipped down the rear stairs and out the door, taking care to keep her step light. In the doorway, she froze in the night’s blackness. Which way? North led toward the Dakota Territory, and south would take her in the direction of Oregon. South it was. Once she got far enough away, she might hightail it to Denver. The brand new centennial state sounded beautiful, with all those mountains and rivers. Hospitals where she might get honest work. Theaters where she’d try her hand at singing. Or even making costumes. She often received compliments on both talents.
She swallowed hard. And if she didn’t find honest work in Colorado, she’d move on. Arizona Territory sounded nice. She’d never been further than a mile or so from town. Never seen the desert. Or those tall cactus that stood sentry like guards at the fort.
She slipped down the alley, hugging the shadows cast by the buildings, until she reached the livery. A covered wagon rested near the corral. She’d overheard customers talking about the train leaving the next day. Perfect. So long as the owners didn’t occupy this rig tonight, she was set.
She crouched low, gritted her teeth, and dashed across the thirty feet separating her from her goal. She slipped up beside the tailgate and listened, forcing her breathing to slow. Didn’t appear anybody was inside. Standing on tiptoes, she peeked in. Two barrels in one corner. A stack of blankets in another. A darkened lantern hanging from a rib. Three tin cups, a kettle, an iron pot, and three plates rested in a wooden box.
But no people.
And no dog.
Whoever owned this rig was trusting.
Hopefully when they discovered her tomorrow, they’d be kind enough to take pity on her and let her stay. She’d offer to look after their kids. At least until their first stop. She’d figure out what to do next after that.
She tossed her satchel into the wagon, then, using the wheel hub as a stepping stool, she pulled herself up. After sliding inside, she landed in a heap with a thunk! She waited a couple of minutes in case she’d aroused attention. When the night remained quiet, she grabbed a blanket from the pile and laid it on the wooden boards. She pulled the itchy cover around her, settled her head on her bag of clothes, and closed her eyes.
Morning couldn’t come too soon for her liking.
Donna writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.
Links to Donna’s website, blog, books, etc.
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