Whistle piercing the air, the wheels of the Southern Pacific ground against the metal rails, jerking passengers back and forth before coming to a screeching stop.
Kate Tenney was the only traveler to rise from her seat. Ignoring the curious gazes of the mostly male passengers, she walked along the narrow aisle and down the steps to the deserted open-air station. Steam puffed across the wooden platform like a hissing dragon. She clutched at her skirt with one damp hand and shaded her brow against the bright noon sun with the other.
The steamer trunk filled with her precious belongings landed with a thud by her side. It had been delivered by the dark-skinned, uniformed porter who then grabbed hold of the handrail and swung his bulky frame back onto the train. He leaned out just far enough to signal the engineer with a wave of his hand and to afford Kate one last pitying look before vanishing inside. He wasn't the first to take pity on her, but if things worked out as she hoped, he would most certainly be the last.
The train slithered away, picking up speed until all that remained of the Tucson-bound express was the sound of a distant whistle and a line of black curling smoke.
Hands on her waist, Kate glanced around with a growing sense of dismay. This couldn't be Cactus Patch. Please don't let it be so. Never in all her twenty-nine years had she imagined such a desolate place.
Finding the nearby baggage room, ticket counter, and telegraph office empty, she turned a complete circle, squinting against the sun's white glare. Other than the cluster of sand-colored buildings in the distance, the flat, arid land stretched all the way to the purple-hued mountains on the horizon with only an occasional cactus to break the monotony in between. Heat waves shimmered from the desert floor and sweat trickled down her temples.
She removed her feathered hat and wiped away the dampness on her forehead with the back of her hand. The hat was more fashionable than practical and had to be tilted in an unappealing way before it offered any real protection from the sun, but the last thing she needed was freckles or a red nose. She was determined to look presentable, if not altogether professional. Her future depended on it.
She pulled a tattered telegram from the pocket of her blue traveling suit. It had taken six days to travel to Arizona Territory from Boston, and she longed for a bath and cool drink.
The telegram clearly stated that a ranch hand would pick her up. It was signed by Miss Eleanor Walker, owner of the Last Chance Ranch. The advertisement for a professional woman to be "heiress" to a cattle ranch had stoked Kate's imagination. She responded partly out of curiosity, but also out of desperation. She needed work, but more than that she wanted the respectability that came with owning land.
She sighed and tucked the telegram back into her pocket. So where was her driver? Where, for that matter, was anyone? The town—if indeed it was a town—showed no sign of life. She couldn't even make out a horse or carriage. Had someone played a trick on her? Was this, in actuality, a ghost town?
Shuddering, she shook away the thought, but riding herd on her imagination was not so easy. What if she had to spend the night stranded in this deserted place? Or was attacked by Indians, bandits, or a pack of hungry, snarling wolves?
She groaned. Her vivid imagination never failed to make a bad situation worse. It was a writer's curse, and the only solution was a course of action that would keep her mind from going off on one of its flights of fancy.
Spotting a rope coiled on the platform, she gathered it in hand and tied it to a handle of her trunk. She wasn't about to leave her clothes and precious books unattended, though she couldn't imagine who would steal them.
She yanked the trunk off the wooden platform, stirring up a cloud of dust, and started toward town. Dragging the trunk was like dragging a dead mule. She moistened her cracked lips, but grit filled her nose and mouth. Her eyes burned and her throat was parched.
The going was slow. At that rate she would be lucky to reach town before dusk.
She stopped from time to time to catch her breath, but the closer she got to Cactus Patch, the harder it was to control her overactive mind.
It wasn't much of a town. Indeed, by Boston's standard it was little more than a whistle-stop. Adobe false-front buildings lined the narrow dirt road, with only a narrow wooden boardwalk separating the two. The sun directly overhead failed to cast so much as a shadow, let alone a spot of shade.
She passed several buildings, the scraping sound of her trunk breaking the silence. According to the handwritten signs in the windows, all businesses were closed, even the barbershop, gunsmith, and Cactus Patch Gazette. A breeze had picked up and a tumbleweed rolled down the middle of the street. The wind felt like the gush of a hot furnace bringing no relief. A loose shutter on a two-story building banged like a slow-beating drum. A saloon's batwing doors moved and squeaked.
The town looked abandoned but oddly, she felt the weight of a thousand eyes upon her. Her imagination playing tricks on her, no doubt. Had to be. Still ...
"Hello," she called. The word felt like a rock in her dry mouth. She cleared her throat and tried again, this time louder. "Anyone there?"
She came to a side street and breathed in relief. Horses were tied to wooden rails, their tails swishing back and forth like pendulums measuring the passing of time. A buckboard wagon was parked on the side of the street along with a buggy.
Never did she think to see a more welcome sight. Horses and wagons meant people. This apparently was the heart of town. It had a bank, a hotel, and a sign that read Marshal—but all appeared to be deserted. At the far end of the street stood a windmill and water tank. Anticipating the feel of cool water in her dry mouth, she quickened her step.
"Hello," she called again, but her call was met with silence. She narrowed her gaze to the doors of the Blue Rooster Saloon. Where was everyone? Had she miscounted the days? Was this in reality the Sabbath instead of Tuesday like she supposed?
* * *
"Shhh." Bessie Adams hunkered behind a pickle barrel in Green's General Merchandise Store. A shadow inched its way across the floor indicating someone outside walking past the store window. The shadow stilled and Bessie's heart thudded.
Finger to her lips, she signaled for her sister not to move. Lula-Belle peered from behind the potbellied stove, her rounded, fear-stricken eyes staring from a well-worn face.
Bessie's joints ached from kneeling on the hardwood floor. At age sixty she was too old for such calisthenics. Was it too much to ask that a woman come to town to do her weekly marketing without having to fear for her life?
As the town's resident outlaw, Cactus Joe had long worn out his welcome. Now he stood outside the shop, and only a pane of glass and a barrel of pickles separated her from him. It was enough to give a person heart failure.
If only she hadn't worn her flowery skirt and yellow shirtwaist. It would be easier to hide an elephant amid the store's adobe walls than her brightly colored garments.
At the first round of gunfire, Mr. Green had bolted the door and locked himself into the stockroom in back with absolutely no regard for the safety of his customers. Bessie hadn't seen hide nor hair of the store owner since. Just wait till she got her hands on the scoundrel. It would serve him right if she took her business elsewhere.
The doorknob jiggled and Bessie's stomach lurched. Gaze riveted on the dark form standing outside the door, she looked around for a weapon but the tools were kept at the back of the store. Only dry goods, sewing notions, and groceries were displayed in front. She eyed the bin of onions and potatoes but settled instead on a can of VanCamp's beans on a nearby shelf. It wasn't much of a weapon, but it was the closest at hand. Let the outlaw raise one finger toward her or her sister and she wouldn't be responsible for her actions. She lifted her gaze to the ceiling. God forgive her.
Something caught her eye and she practically fainted. The peacock feather on Lula-Belle's ridiculous hat waved like an engineer trying to stop a train. Bessie reached across the aisle and snatched her sister's hat off her head.
"Ouch!" Lula-Belle hissed, glaring at her. She grabbed the hat in Bessie's hand, and the two struggled for a moment before the boater shot up and caught on a ceiling hook used to hang meat.
"Now look what you've done!" Lula-Belle rubbed her head, her tightly wound curls bobbing up and down like tiny springs. "That hurt," she mouthed.
"A bullet will hurt more," Bessie mouthed back.
The doorknob jiggled again and Bessie ducked out of sight. Despite her frazzled nerves, she thought up a plan. Unfortunately, the plan required her sister's cooperation—never a good thing.
Mercy, it was the same old story. Nothing would get done if it wasn't for her. Her husband, Sam, would starve to death if she wasn't around to feed him. As for her two grown nephews, their lack of domestic skills was the least of it. Neither one of them had the slightest idea how to find a wife. This meant she had no choice but to put her considerable matchmaking skills to work yet again. Now it looked as if she would even have to do the marshal's job and catch Cactus Joe herself.
Heart pounding, she forced herself to calm down. It was no time to panic. Lula-Belle would panic enough for both of them. "I'll hide on the other side," she whispered, pointing to the cracker barrel. "When he comes inside you distract him. Make a lot of noise."
Lula-Belle's already-pale face turned as white as the shawl around her shoulders. "What ... what are you going to do?"
"While he's looking at you, I'll sneak up behind him and hit him over the head." She held up the can of beans. "I'll hold him down while you get the marshal."
Lula-Belle stared at the tin can in Bessie's hand, her face suffused with doubt. "I don't think ..."
The sound of breaking glass sent Bessie scurrying across the floor on hands and knees and ducking behind the cracker barrel. She grimaced. Her knees and back would never be the same. Too late she realized her sister had followed her and was now hunkered down by her side.
"You were supposed to stay on the other side."
"You didn't tell me that," Lula-Belle argued.
Bessie rolled her eyes and tried to think how to salvage the situation. The cracker barrel wasn't wide enough to provide adequate protection for both of them. Before she could think of a solution, the door flew open and Lula-Belle grabbed her arm.
Cactus Joe stepped inside the shop, glass crunching beneath his boots. Holding his gun aloft, he was dressed in his customary black trousers and shirt. He had dark, greasy-looking hair, a thin mustache, and an eye patch. It was the patch that saved them as he obviously couldn't see to his left.
It was now or never. After prying Lula-Belle's fingers from her arm, Bessie shot up quick as a jack-in-the-box and threw the beans hard. The can sailed past the outlaw, knocked over a stack of Log Cabin syrup cans, and bounced off the wall before ricocheting back to hit Cactus Joe on the shoulder.
Startled, the bandit fired his gun. The bullet whizzed straight up to the ceiling whereupon Lula-Belle's prized hat fell atop his head.
Blinded by feathers, Cactus Joe yelped and danced around the store, knocking over canned and soft goods alike in an effort to rid himself of the felt confection.
Lula-Belle let out a bloodcurdling scream. "Save the hat!"
Just as the outlaw freed himself, a woman stepped into the shop—a stranger.
Looking straight at Bessie, she said, "Thank goodness. I thought I heard a gun—" She spotted Cactus Joe and froze, her rounded eyes riveted on his weapon.
Cactus Joe swung around, grabbed the stranger with one arm, and dragged her outside.
"Quick, lock the door," Bessie yelled, even though the broken glass wouldn't keep out a fly. At the sound of gunfire, she and her sister dived behind the counter, cracking their heads together in their haste to hide. Never in all her born days did Bessie pray so hard.
* * *
Kate's captor dragged her along the deserted boardwalk. "Let me go!" she cried. Her ears still ringing from the deafening report, she hit him hard with her fist and kicked him in the shin.
"Ow, that hurt." Sounding annoyed, he jerked her back and waved his gun.
She gasped. This is my imagination. Please, please, let it be so. Only it wasn't. His fingers digging into the f lesh of her arm convinced her of that. She glared up at him and shuddered. The formidable black-clad figure glared with one good eye. He had a thin, slightly crooked mustache, shoulder-length black hair, and pockmarked skin.
He pointed the gun at some distant target and fired again. Kate flinched. The man shot at the trunk she'd left in the middle of the dirt-packed street, and her clothes and books were now scattered on the ground.
"You didn't have to do that," she cried. "You didn't have to shoot my trunk."
"It's this blasted eye patch," he muttered. He sounded almost apologetic, but the steel-like grip on her arm remained. "Can't see worth a plugged nickel. I was actually aiming for that saloon."
Another shot sounded, this time from a distance away. A chip of wood flew off a nearby sign. Fearing that the distant shooter would fire again, she screamed, "Help, help!"
The outlaw yanked her closer, slamming her against his chest. "Shut up."
"Let her go, Cactus Joe," someone called from atop the Golden Star Saloon.
"Come and get her, Marshal," her captor hollered back. He fired another shot, this time aiming at the roof.
Mercy. If she was writing this scene, her heroine would have a weapon in her boot and the courage to use it, but at the moment she lacked both. Since her high-button shoes contained nothing more than two sore feet, the man named Cactus Joe had little to fear from her.
Pointing his gun at the saloon, he moved backward to the opposite side of the street, pulling her with him. He reeked of whiskey, tobacco, and sweat. Fear knotted inside her. Her body shook so hard that at first she thought the jingling sound was her rattling bones instead of his spurs.
He walked faster now, dragging her along with him.
"You ... you have no right to make me a party to your n-nefarious ways," she stammered.
"I hate to disappoint you, lady, but we ain't goin' to no party."
He forced her down an alley and behind the buildings toward two horses. No—one horse. Her eyes were playing tricks on her. She felt dizzy, faint, her legs weightless. Her head began to swim and she swayed. With a muttered curse the outlaw shoved her away. She fell forward, hitting the ground hard.
Momentarily stunned, she fought her way through the thickening fog. Confusion surrounded her. Running feet. Shouts. The pounding of horses' hooves. She raised herself up on both hands but was blinded by the sun.
She had no idea how long she lay there, unable to move. Finally a shadow swept over her, mercifully blocking out the relentless dazzling light.
His wolf dog, Homer, greeted him at the door, tail between his legs. Part Mexican gray wolf, the dog had pointed ears and long legs and tail. Homer had dived for cover during the initial round of gunfire and that's where he'd pretty much stayed. Now he regarded Luke as if seeking reassurance, the dim light turning his amber eyes almost yellow.
"It's all right, boy. She's not going to hurt you."
A quick glance toward the darkened forge told him his younger brother, Michael, had taken off the moment Luke stepped outside. His brother hadn't completed the simplest task Luke had assigned him. The unopened can of Neatsfoot oil meant the leather bellows had not been lubricated. Michael hadn't even calked the wood to keep the bellows from losing pressure.
Excerpted from Dawn Comes Early by Margaret Brownley Copyright © 2012 by Margaret Brownley. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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