Rock Springs, Wyoming Territory, 1885
Gloria Seaton looked out over the rolling foothills of Wyoming towards Rock Springs, a tiny cluster of buildings in the distance. It seemed a world away, the doings of men and women scuttling about their lives while the Seatons went on as usual, day by day, isolated and alone.
A breeze raked the countryside, pushing Gloria’s red hair back, long and curly over her pale shoulders as she looked out over her livestock. The flock was shrinking under the pressures of disease and predators and what seemed to be a dark cloud hanging over the Seaton household. We’d started out with so much hope, Gloria couldn’t help but remember, her border collie Dobbie running and barking to corral the meager flock of sheep. Twice this many sheep with the promise of more.
Then the Crow came.
Gloria closed her eyes to shut out the images as they flashed across her memory, the smell of charred wood in her nostrils, her ears unable to forget the echoes of the savage whoops and cries in the distance as they escaped the scene of their savagery.
When Gloria opened her eyes again, her calm reality reassured her. The past was behind her. The future lay ahead, beyond her ability to know, much less control. But Gloria knew she could shape the future if she could better control her present. Barney won’t be able to do that, Gloria knew. He has other things to offer. It’s for me to think us through this, that’s what I can contribute.
The flock kept shrinking, and with it the ranch and the Seaton siblings’ prospects. Their parents had been the driving force behind the Circle T Ranch, a combination of charm and intelligence and even cunning that would have made their family a great success. Gloria knew she’d have to supply all the things that her two fine parents could no longer deliver. And the answers to her life riddles eluded her, despite hours of pondering and asserting the few gifts she had.
Another few years and we’ll have nothing. The chickens are doing well enough, and the vegetables, and those will keep us alive. But the sheep are our fortune, our future, and they’re dying.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. Can’t out-think disease, can’t outsmart animals that won’t husband one another, miscarriages and —
Dobbie’s barks came out of nowhere, the longhaired dog suddenly lunging at something coming in fast from a nearby clutch of ash and juniper. The wolf was massive, gray and white and flecks of charcoal black fur bristling and rigid. It leapt out at Dobbie, jaws snapping, throat pumping out an intense cry. Dobbie met the crazed beast, the two biting at each other’s neck and shoulders as they threw themselves at each other.
The attack was nothing like a normal wolf attack, at night with a pack, closing in with deadly precision. This animal erupted from the trees, a rogue, alienated from the pack and made to fend for itself.
Gloria knew instantly the creature’s condition and circumstance, but there was no time to sympathize.
Gloria pulled her Colt Bisley revolver out of the holster strapped to her thigh. She raised the gun and aimed quickly. Gloria closed one eye to focus on the other, and the distance between her and her prey provided little challenge.
The wolf and her dog were so closely intertwined that there was no way to ensure not killing Dobbie by accident, even as it laid down its life to protect Gloria and the sheep.
The wolf rushed Dobbie enough to push the erstwhile sheepdog back in retreat. But instead of pressing its advantage against the dog, the wolf turned and charged at Gloria instead.
Gloria had missed her opportunity to put a bullet into the wolf’s broadside with Dobbie safely far away. But with the wolf charging, Gloria had a much narrower target, moving even faster and directly at her. White fangs flashed from pink gums, jaws snapping as it leapt to secure them around Gloria’s throat.
The wolf howled out and twitched, body still flying forward.
Gloria ducked and rolled, up on her knees and spinning to survey her adversary. The wolf lay on the grass, writhing, legs up, tongue lolling out of its gaping jaws.
Dobbie looked on, barking at the wolf, then approaching it in a cautious silence, sniffing and whining. The sheep were scattered, and that grabbed the dog’s instinctive attention. She turned to corral them while Gloria holstered her pistol and sized up the wolf, too big to carry back to the ranch without Barney’s help.
Gloria whistled to Dobbie, who led the sheep back up the hill toward the ranch house, leaving the wolf behind. But only an hour later, Barney and their ranch-hand Manuel had draped the carcass over the rump of one of their horses, Marigold, and ridden the mare back up the hill. Manuel skinned the beast and worked the hide, ridding it of any tiny scraps of fat, Barney and Gloria butchered the beast into quarters and then into steaks, chops, meat for drying and for stewing.
Barney worked his chores with a single-mindedness that drove his massive arms, huge body turning with purposefulness and an unusual grace for a man of his size. Hoisting the three-hundred-pound animal onto and off of Marigold’s haunches hadn’t even been a challenge for Gloria’s older brother, and as the hunks of the beast got lighter and lighter, his brute strength became something more: deliberate, economic, not a move wasted.
Barney asked Gloria, “Think we’ll get much for the hide? Shops up in Rock Springs find plenty of buyers in those tourists.” He looked down at her from his incredible height, well over six feet compared to her mere five-and-a-half-foot. He reminded her of their father in those moments, sharing the family’s red hair and freckled, pale skin.
Gloria nodded with the patient smile she often wore in her brother’s company. It seemed to reassure him as much as it did herself. But Gloria could never really know.
“That’s exactly right, Barney. Hard to say how much.”
“You’ll get us a good price, Gloria,” Barney said, his voice soft, but very deep. “You’re a lot smarter’n any of those shopkeepers.”
Gloria had to cough up a disenchanted huff. “I don’t know about that, Barney. But at least I can still shoot straight.”
Barney chuckled, nodding. “Sure can, Gloria, sure can.”
They dropped their butchering knives into the animal’s meat and bones, separating its useful parts and organizing them for smoking and storage.
“We’ll plan a trip into town in a day or two,” Gloria said, “give the hide time to dry out.” Barney nodded, and Gloria searched his expression for emotions she knew he was hiding, thought she knew he wasn’t sharing. “That’ll be fun, going into Rock Springs.”
But Gloria didn’t have to look too far or for too long to know what her brother was thinking or feeling. He never felt comfortable in Rock Springs or any town, especially after the Crow took their parents ten years before. Barney had always felt overwhelmed in town, over his head intellectually. He understood life on the ranch, it was simpler, more attuned to his way of thinking.
“I’m sure Beatrice Albertson will be glad to see you.” Gloria let a little smile curl into her cheek as she watched her brother’s reaction, his blush betraying him. “I guess you’ll be glad to see her too.” Barney turned away, too late. “Barney, why are you so bashful about it? There’s nothing wrong or sinful in feeling the way you do.”
“You don’t know how I feel.”
Gloria repeated, “No?”
Barney paused, shrugging and turning back to the butchered wolf. “Okay,” he said, his voice a low, deep whine. “I guess you do.”
“And we both know how she feels about you.” Another bashful silence could only inspire Gloria to say, “And she’s not the only one. Maybe you just don’t see the looks you get from the girls in town, the way they wave at you from the balconies —”
“I don’t like those kinds of girls,” Barney said.
“No, Barney, I don’t mean those girls. But the others, the tourists you mentioned. A big strapping man like you —”
“I don’t care about any of them,” Barney said, his voice rising just a bit, a hint of the bellow hiding behind his calm facade.
“I know you don’t, Barney, I know. But you do feel that way about Beatrice, don’t you?”
Barney shrugged again, dropping his butcher’s knife onto the wolf bone. “She’s very nice, and she’s always very sweet. Not just to me, but, she’s just a … a good person, that’s all.”
“And that’s quite a lot in this world, isn’t it?”
Barney nodded. “Sure is.”
“Why, I quite think that’s more than enough. If two people think the other is of a certain quality —”
“I can’t, Gloria, I can’t!”
Gloria put her knife down and set her hand on her older brother’s tremendous arm, her gentle touch reliably soothing. “Of course you can, Barney, you needn’t be afraid. I’m sure she’ll say yes.”
“No, Gloria, it’s … it’s not that. I guess she will too, I’m not afraid of that.”
“You … you’re not?”
“It’s you, Gloria, I can’t marry ‘lest you’re marrying too.”
Gloria’s head tilted a bit on her neck as she digested this new information. “Me?”
“I can’t leave you alone in the world, Gloria, I can’t. I have to take care of you, we have to take care of each other.”
“Oh, Barney, of course we do, and we always will. But that doesn’t mean we have to spend the rest of our lives here together alone on this ranch.”
“We have Manuel!”
Gloria couldn’t help but chuckle. “Yes, Barney, we do have Manuel. And we have each other. But that’s not going to be enough for either of us, Barney. Not forever. After Mother and Father died, we had to stick together, you’re right. And thank God we had each other to cling to, and I thank him every day that we always will.”
“We’re family,” Barney said, “and that’s more important than anything else, you always said!”
“And it’s true, Barney, it really is. But marriage, children, new generations, that’s part of family too. A big, big part.”
Barney thought about it, but the revelation didn’t bring him any evident anticipation or release, just a grim vision of a gray future.
“What about you, Gloria?”
She knew what he meant, of course. But she answered, “Well, we both can’t marry Beatrice Albertson! Anyway, I think she’s a bit more your type.”
They shared a laugh, but it didn’t last long.
Barney said, “There’re lots of men in Rock Springs too, Gloria.”
“There sure are.” Gloria turned her attention back to her gruesome chore. “Most of those men, well …” But Gloria recognized in her own voice something similar to her brother’s somber tone. And she knew she could ask no more of him than she was willing to do herself, if asked. “Well,” she went on with a sigh, “let’s see what happens in Rock Springs. You never do know.”
“That’s right,” Barney said, “you never do.”
Gloria smiled, and so did Barney. But she knew he was sharing her sense of apprehension, a wariness of danger that seemed to haunt them, on the ranch or off. But Rock Springs would bring possibility, of adventure, of profit, of romance, and of disaster.
Gloria rode Marigold while Barney rode Babe, a big quarter horse necessary for her brother’s size. The horses huffed as they made their way slowly north toward town, the wolf’s hide draped over Babe’s haunches.
Yarrow and coneflower were bursting to colorful life over the rolling foothills, patches of pinks and purples and yellows, glorious against the green grass.
The spruce and pine stood in silent sentry as Gloria and Barney passed, giving no testimony to the beauties and horrors they’d witnessed. Shrikes sang in their thickly leaved branches, unseen and numerous until a prairie falcon flew in and the smaller birds scattered into a cloud of feathers and frightened wings.They spread out across the Wyoming sky, the sky vast and blue, cradling lazy white clouds drifting past with effortless tranquility.
Barney was tense, head frequently turning as he surveyed the area, careful to check behind them as often as anywhere else. Gloria didn’t have to wonder why he was so tense, what he was on the lookout for, or who.
The Crow, Gloria knew, taking her own look around. They seem to come out of nowhere with those terrible cries and stolen guns, knives to cut and stab with ruthless precision. But they can’t actually come out of nowhere, and there’s nobody near us, not for miles in any direction.
Another glance at her brother told an even sadder tale.
It must haunt him as much as it does me,Gloria reasoned. Probably even more.
Gloria didn’t want to relive that terrible day yet again. She took a deep breath of the Wyoming breeze, the scent of the snowberry carrying deep into her lungs to refresh her. A meadowlark flew overhead, drawing her attention to the bright sun above them, warming and reassuring.
Barney was obviously not soothed, his agitation growing as the horses carried them steadily north.
“Barney?” Her brother’s head snapped as his body turned to her, and Gloria could imagine the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. But she said in a very soothing voice, “I think we’re okay, Barney, that’s all. You can relax a bit.”
Barney just shook his head and turned to look in front, the town rising up slowly out of the horizon. The closer they got to town, the safer they were, both Gloria and Barney knew that. But they weren’t there yet.
“Why do you think it is, Gloria? That they never hit us on the ranch, I mean?”
It was something Gloria had thought about a good deal, and it surprised her that the subject only then was coming up between them. “I don’t think it’s their practice, in general. Maybe they get too much resistance in such attacks, unlike with easier, smaller, more mobile targets.”
After another nervous glance around them, Barney said, “Like us.”
Gloria knew he was right, and she knew how lucky she was to have such an attentive guardian. Something told her she would need it, sooner rather than later, and more than ever before in her twenty-five years.
A lone whistle called in the distance. Gloria and Barney turned to see a narrow tower of smoke leaking up from the east. A second whistle announced the train’s imminent arrival in Rock Springs.
“Railroad,” Barney said, scarcely needing to have done so.
“Sure is, Barney, sure is.” The siblings kept riding their horses forward as the train charged down the tracks, still tiny in the distance. Both parties were approaching the same place. Their paths were bound to cross and Gloria shuddered to think what kind of catastrophic collision would result.
That clamoring machine represented everything about the changing face of the nation, a face that Gloria knew she may not soon recognize. Their lives had become isolated, even perplexing, but it had retained a certain kind of simplicity, the beauty of nature always surrounding them, for good or for ill. But the advance of these great metal monsters, all steel and steam and grease and growl, meant a change for the United States from which Gloria knew it would never return. Those trains would bring more people, more cities, more trains trailing more trains behind them, each one longer and louder and bigger than the last. Gloria looked up at the blue sky stretching out above them, the miniscule black tower of smoke disappearing into it, unable to stain that vast heaven.
But,Gloria couldn’t help wonder, for how long? How many years before that smoke collects and hovers above us? Where is it all to go, after all? The wind may blow it, but to where? Where will the smoke from other cities go? Somewhere, surely; here, eventually. How long before the sky is as black as the coal that created the smoke to fill it?
They rode on and Gloria had to admit to herself that with all the risk and threat and looming disaster that the railroads brought, they brought so much more: new doctors and lawyers and their state-of-the-art practices, life-saving vaccines, sophisticated people to raise the level of society here and all over the nation.
Men, Gloria couldn’t help but think, unable to prevent her mind from wandering. Barney may have a point. I am kind of lonely, and to meet a man of some quality, a man the like of which don’t come from Rock Springs, but from New York or Chicago, a man of sophistication and education as well as valor and courage …
Gloria sighed. What are the odds I’ll simply happen upon such a man, or that such a man would be single, or that he would be interested in the struggling head of a failing sheep ranch?
The train whistled again, a lonesome answer to her silent question, making her spine tremble.
Rock Springs opened up before Gloria and Barney like another world. They’d both made plenty of trips into town, of course, but each time the place seemed to get bigger, louder, more crowded. The gaslights hadn’t been lit, standing in solemn lines up and down B Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. Shops and cafes and hotels were crammed together each side of the big street. Elevated wooden sidewalks were filled with pedestrians walking in each direction, some boldenough to cross against the traffic to the other side, braving the horses, carriages, buggies and carts that rolled up and down the muddy, unpaved strip of road.
The train tracks led to the big train depot, featuring an elevated platform for passengers and a small ticket office that also boasted a telegraph service. The passengers were already unloaded by the time Gloria and Barney arrived, and the great empty train sat hissing like a frustrated bull eager to charge forward once more.
Brother and sister traded a dubious glance before riding further on into Rock Springs.
“Well, well,” a vaguely familiar voice bellowed, grabbing Gloria’s attention. She and Barney looked over from their horses to see Sheriff Marvin Ballentine approaching, looking up with a smile curling his long, brown mustache. He reached up, his plump belly extending in front of him. “Gloria and Barnard Seaton,” the sheriff said, “as I live and breathe.”
“Sheriff Ballentine,” Gloria said, “how kind of you to remember us.”
“I’d have an easier time of it if you’d come into town more often!” One glance at the wolf’s hide on Babe’s haunches told the sheriff what business had brought them in. “Looks like you’ve got a fine kill here, a very impressive hide. Taking it to Deek Hobbs, I’m guessing.”
Gloria looked around the bustling boulevard. “Unless he’s got some new competition.”
“Plenty,” Sheriff Ballentine said, sharing her glance. “Rock Springs is growing by leaps and bounds, as you can see.”
“Hobbs is a good man,” Barney said, “always been good to us.”
Gloria nodded. “But we may get more from somebody else.”
“Just be careful who you deal with,” the sheriff said, turning to spit a wad of chewing tobacco into the dirt. “This place’s become home to all manner of scoundrels, bandits on the come, desperate types looking for a score. Now more than ever, be on your guard.”
Gloria had suspected as much, she felt it in her bones. But her attention was drawn to Barney, who took the warning even more gravely. It would be for him to stand against the worst elements that may come against them, Gloria knew, and he was ever at the ready, almost to a fault. It would be for Gloria to see them coming first, to intercept with diplomacy before Barney’s gifts led them all to violence.
But Gloria and Barney had always gotten along by sticking together, gifted with a rare combination of skills very few strangers could interlope, much less dissolve or destroy.
“But there is more opportunity here now,” Sheriff Ballentine said. “More money coming in, people and buying and selling all over town, creating a real upper class.” But Gloria and Barney just traded an unimpressed glance. The sheriff added, “Nothing like up in Lander, they’ve even brought Jack Rollins in. Just finished a fine new estate just outside of town.”
Barney asked, “Who’s Jack Rollins?”
Gloria added, “I wouldn’t know him from Adam.”
The sheriff huffed with a little smile buried under his hairy upper lip. “He’s only an heir to the B&O Railroad. I hear he’s got a fine new mansion overlooking all of Lander. Why, a man like that, a name like that, just think what it could do for Rock River.”
“Well, that’s … that’s great for Lander, I suppose,” Gloria said. “But … why would such a man settle out here in Wyoming? Sounds like a place like New York or Chicago might be more to his liking.”
Sheriff Ballentine nodded. “Never met the man, but I hear from friends out Lander way that he spurns his family’s fortune, the power they wield up in Washington and elsewhere. Were I to presume, I’d guess he’s looking for a simpler life, a life of his own, apart from all that, as much as might be possible.”
Gloria gave it some thought, lendingthis unseen and unknown man a few flashes of curiosity before moving on to more important, more pressing business.
“Well,” Gloria said, “we’d better get to Mr. Hobbs. See if we can’t strike a deal over this hide.”
Sheriff Ballentine nodded and extended his hand, Barney reaching down to shake it. “Good to see you both back in Rock Springs. Have plans to stay the night?”
Gloria shook her head. “We’ve left our hand managing the ranch, but it’s quite a job for just one man.”
“Perhaps another hire while you’re here? You’ll find plenty of eager workers, some who might offer labor in trade for room and board.”
Gloria smiled and pretended to give it some thought, as a matter of courtesy and of respect. “Perhaps,” she said, nodding to tip her hat and shaking Marigold’s reins to push her forward, Barney nodding at the sheriff as well as they rode on.
Gloria and Barney dragged the wolf’s hide into Deek Hobbs’ General Store and Traders, the shop’s namesake proprietor greeting them with another friendly smile. Unlike Rock Springs’ sheriff, one of its most stalwart businessmen was big and muscular with a thick, rugged white beard over his craggy face. He laughed as he approached and the Seaton siblings set down their offering. Hobbs wrapped his big arms around Barney and gave him a squeeze, but Barney’s size made even the mountainous Hobbs seem small by comparison. Hobbs turned to Gloria and offered her a dainty nod, contrasting with his hearty size and rough manner.
“The belle of Rock Springs,” he said in his gravelly voice, the embodiment of a life in the mountains ground finer by a career in a burgeoning western town.
“I’m nothing of the sort,” Gloria said with a modest tone. “Though I may be the bane of the local lupines.”
Hobbs looked over the wolf’s hide, streaks of gray in varying shades, touches of brown and pure black and white, in an impressive grain. “You may be indeed,” Hobbs said. “This great brute must have put up one hell of a scrap.”
“He wasn’t any smarter than my sister,” Barney said. “That’s what counts in the end.”
“That’s as true as the skies are wide,” Hobbs said. “What will you take in trade?”
Gloria looked around the shop. There were all manner of things they needed on the ranch, and little they could do with mere currency. “We need some hoes to expand our gardens,” Gloria said, “and seeds, and perhaps a —”
“Ammunition,” Barney said, his voice low and quick, silence quickly surrounding the three.
“Yes,” Gloria said with a smile to ease the sudden tension. “We can always use more of that, by all means.”
Hobbs smiled at the prospect, nodding and turning to collect the items. “Very good. No wonder you two have survived as well as you have.”
“Barely at all,” Gloria said, causing Hobbs to turn.
“How many of us can say more than that?”
Barney offered, “Jack Rollins?”
“Oh,” Hobbs said, “you too? Still a whole town away and the very bees are abuzz with the name.”
Gloria asked, “What do you know of this man?”
Hobbs shrugged. “Not much. I hear he’s a good man, quiet. Spends without worry I might say, not at all interested in cheating anyone, so I’ve been told. That goes a long way in my book.”
“And in mine,” Gloria said. “Least as far as not cheating you goes.”
Hobbs huffed. “Li’l darlin’, nobody cheats me.”
They shared a smile, and she said, “Very good. No wonder you’ve survived as well as you have.”
After packing the trade goods onto their horses, Gloria and Barney saddled up for a ride back to the ranch. Gloria glanced down the street toward the bakery on the corner. She cocked her head and smiled. “Fancy a bit of something sweet?”
Barney blushed, rolling his eyes. “Gloria!”
But she didn’t wait for him to object. A little kick of her heels, a shake of the reins, and Marigold was once more carrying her deeper into Rock Springs, Barney dutifully riding up behind her.
The smells of the bakery wafted straight through Gloria’s nostrils and into her brain, cutting through the less pleasant odors of the horse-heavy thoroughfare. Once in the shop, the colors and shapes of the various cream pastries were almost enough to make Gloria’s head spin. They seemed too delicious, too delicate, out of place in the rugged western town of Rock Springs.
Things are certainly changing, Gloria thought, imagining any of the coarse, filthy cowboys or miners digging their mangy teeth and purple gums into those heaps of white whipped cream.
“Oh my, well look who it is!” Beatrice Albertson scurried out from a back room of her little pastry shop. She beamed, happy to see Gloria and especially Barney. She looked on Gloria as very much like one of her own pastries: soft and graceful, full-bodied and attractive, guaranteed to be as sweet on the inside as she appeared on the outside. “I knew it would be a good day when I woke up this morning.”
Barney nodded, hat in hand. “Miss Beatrice.”
“Mister Seaton,” she said, teasing him just a little with her formality.
Gloria tried not to enjoy it too much, hiding most of her little smile. “Beatrice, how are you? We couldn’t come and go without paying a visit.”
“Certainly not,” Beatrice said. “I wouldn’t have heard of such a thing.” She took each by the hand, an eager hostess as she pulled them to a little table on the other side of the counter. Beatrice sat Gloria and Barney down and then walked between the two glass cabinets. She pulled out two plates, each with a doily, and set a big cream puff on each. She placed one in front of Gloria and the other in front of Barney, adding, “I’ll put on some tea.”
Barney said, “You needn’t go to any trouble.”
She was already in the back room and Gloria could only look at Barney grinning mischievously. Barney looked like he wanted to be angry with her, but he couldn’t and he must have known he had no reason. He was probably secretly glad Gloria was forcing the issue, something he for all his strength and courage would never be able to do on his own, which was precisely whyGloria persisted.
Beatrice came back from the back room,stepping out with an eager smile. Gloria could see that Beatrice had straightened her hair and dress, making sure her bustle and corset looked just right.
And they did.
Gloria said, “You’re looking prettier than ever, Beatrice. I love those frills.”
Beatrice smiled. “I wouldn’t have dreamed, but business has really been quite brisk.”
Barney bit into the pastry, a trace of cream on his chin as he chewed, eyes rolling back into his head.
Gloria said, “I guess I can see why. We’re both so happy for your success, Beatrice.” She looked around the shop, then at the pale right ring finger of her closest friend in town. “How many men are you tormenting with your refusals, Beatrice?”
Beatrice giggled, but her attention drifted toward Barney. Barney looked away and Gloria knew he was probably hoping a hole might drop out under him, and she was glad that it would not.
Beatrice said, “One or two poor souls, I suppose I should admit. But though there are many men coming and going in Rock Springs …” she looked at Barney, catching his eye to add, “not all are of such a good character. And there are so few I can honestly call a true friend.”
Gloria enjoyed the moment of sentiment. She could do more than sense the magnetic pull between the two. It was almost powerful enough to blast her out of the bakery like a burst of suppressed mutual attraction.
The cake was creamy and sweet in Gloria’s mouth, the pastry flaky and light, the tea hot and soothing in a delightful contrast.
Something else caught Gloria’s attention. Three men stood on the other side of the big storefront window, where pedestrians gazed at the fantastic displays designed to lure them in. But these men didn’t seem interested in the pastries. They were staring past the cakes and directly at Beatrice and then, it seemed, at Barney. The three men made a frightening impression, one with a black mustache and mean sneer, one with long blond hair and beard, the other with a mangled left ear, cut to a scarred nub.
The man in the center, with the black mustache, caught site of Gloria, their eyes locked. Hairs stood up on the back of her arms, but the men turned to walk on as soon as the connection had been made. The hairs remained standing after the men had walked on.
Barney said, “Gloria? What’s wrong?”
Beatrice asked, “Something the matter, Gloria?”
Gloria was hard pressed to deny it. But she also knew what Barney’s disposition was, how defensive he could be, aggressively so. For him, every conflict was a way for him to make up for that fateful fight he couldn’t have enjoined. Gloria knew if she set him off against every ugly customer who looked at her sideways, it wouldn’t be long before Barney up and killed somebody and had to hang for it. But Gloria’s life mission was to protect her brother from such an unjust fate, and the first step in that direction was not to inspire it on her own.
“No, Barney, it’s nothing,” Gloria said. “I was just … thinking about Mother and Father. You remember how Mother loved sweets.”
Barney nodded, but Gloria wasn’t sure if he was merely humoring her or if she’d successfully distracted him yet again.
A clamor in the thoroughfare distracted all of their attentions, men hollering and laughing far too loud even for that rowdy forum. Barney and Gloria leaned forward, Barney taking particular interest as Gloria managed to make out what was happening even past the cakes and the glass window beyond them.
Several men were shouting, others gathering around to watch. As their muffled hollering got louder, Barney pushed himself to his feet and walked across to the door. Gloria knew there was little chance of stopping him, so she followed to see what the ruckus was about, and to prevent Barney from involving himself in it. As soon as she got a clearer view of what was going on, she knew that wasn’t going to be possible.
Barney stepped out into the thoroughfare, Gloria and Beatrice behind him. Beatrice stepped past Gloria to follow him into the street, but Gloria held her back, knowing that either of them would only get in the way and make whatever was going to happen that much worse.
Barney walked into the fight just as what was happening became clear. Three men were encircling a young black man who was wearing rags even more threadbare than those of his attackers. The mengrinned and chided and stuck knives at the black boy, who seemed no older than fifteen in Gloria’s estimation. They laughed and thrust their knives at him, closer and closer and from every direction as the poor boy cowered, holding up his empty hands in a feeble attempt at self-defense.
Nothing about surprised to Gloria. Since the end of the War Between the States just a decade earlier tensions remained high surrounding the subject of Reconstruction. Relations between the races seemed almost worse than they were before, if such a thing could be possible. Instead of a strained tolerance in some areas, where some benefit could be construed from that terrible bondage or where a whiff of mutual understanding could sometimes be found, there was widespread and undisguised hatred, bile spilling like blood, and blood like bile.
Barney also seemed to understand what was happening, but Gloria knew the details wouldn’t have mattered to him. Three bigger, older men against a small boy, three deadly knives against an unarmed victim. Barney would never stand for that — yet another thing about him upon which Gloria could safely rely.
The man nearest to Barney approached him with the knife, seeming to be driven by upset and anger and a readiness to be violent, against a smaller, darker foe or a much, much larger one. But Barney was in control of his emotions, acting as he always did with deliberate movement, never wasting his considerable energy.
The man swiped the knife twice, missing Barney both times before exposing his shoulder and back to Barney, a crucial mistake. Barney threw a hard left cross, his mighty fist sailing through the air to make contact with the man’s face. The blow snapped the man’s head to the side and his body followed suit, legs staggering for a step or two before dropping out under him and letting the man fall to the muddy street.
Traffic started gathering around the thoroughfare, unable to get through. Carriages and carts and horses collected in a thickening crowd, their impatience sated only by the thrill and danger of the exhibition. Gloria couldn’t help reflect on their bloodlust, spectators shaking their heads and calling out for one party or the other to prevail, and draw as much gore in the doing as possible.
The black boy scurried away from the circle of conflict in the center of the street, so low to the ground he was almost crawling as he scrambled into the crowd for safety, if he would ever find such a thing.
Gloria turned her attention from him back to Barney, who was facing a second of the three attackers. The man dropped his knife and pulled a pistol out of his holster, but he wasn’t quick enough to get off a shot before Barney reached out and grabbed him, one big fist on his belt buckle, the other on his collar. Barney lifted the man up off the ground, his pistol falling useless into the mud as he grabbed Barney’s wrists, legs kicking up into the air.
Barney turned and threw the man into the third of the three attackers. The man rolled through the midair before striking his cohort, the two men falling back and crashing into the mud, a tangle of legs and arms and confused brains banging around in bruised skulls.
The first man collected his wits and threw himself into another assault against Barney. Lacking his knife and not seeming to possess a gun, the man went at Barney with his bare fists, a move both brave and foolhardy. Gloria almost admired his raw courage.
He threw several hard blows in to Barney’s side, punches that might have done serious damage to any other man. Barney barely seemed to feel them. He stood there for a moment and let the man throw everything he had at him, quickly sapping his energy as punch after punch merely bounced off Barney’s thick torso.
Once the man stopped punching he looked up into Barney’s face and, even from that distance, Gloria could see the man knew he was beaten.
Other faces grabbed Gloria’s attention, three of them familiar from just a few moments before, when they were glaring at her, Beatrice and Barney from outside the bakery. They had the same looks in their eyes, fixed with a beady certainty, shifting from Beatrice to Gloria and then to Barney, dominating everyone’s attention in the center of the thoroughfare. Gloria’s instincts told her that the men had developed an interest in them, and she was ready enough to guess what was inspiring that attention.
Gloria and Beatrice were attractive women, and such women were often the targets of men with low moral fibre, men of base desires and little reason to self-govern them. Gloria knew that, by all outside appearances, the only thing protecting her and Beatrice from any marauding interloper or deviant was Barney, his great strength and his loyalty. Removing him from the equation would put her and Beatrice at almost any man’s mercy, as far as they had any reason to deduce.
Gloria knew Barney would prevail against the men in the street, and that she and Beatrice had little to do but watch and wait. If anything, their interference could be a hindrance. And it already occurred to Gloria that she and Barney wouldn’t be around to protect Beatrice, and that they may already have drawn terrible attention upon her pretty head.
By the time Gloria returned her attention to Barney, he’d picked up his assailant by the ankles and was spinning, swinging the man like a human mace and smashing him into his cohorts, letting go of him once the other two had been knocked back down. That man flew far and landed hard in the dirt, the ring of spectators backing up to give him room and to avoid being hit by his chaotic roll in the dirt.
Barney looked around to see not one of the men able to crawl back to his feet. He’d beaten them soundly. And once the crowd visually confirmed the fact, they threw up a great cheer. Some shook their heads and sneered in disgust, and Gloria knew they’d rather have seen violence done to the poor boy. But for the most, the crowd had been thrilled by Barney’s courageous intervention, by the sheer rush of the contest. It didn’t reflect well on them in Gloria’s estimation, but she was every bit as glad as they seemed to be, glad to see her brother prevail against the shadows of evil, but even more glad to see him unhurt and safe once again.
A glance at those three other men, still eyeing her with a venomous gaze, told her that even as they faded into the crowd, she would see them again.
And it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
Barney stepped away from the crowd of spectators as they cheered, paying them no mind at all. Beatrice was beaming, so taken with Barney’s incredible performance. Her hands were clasped at her breasts, her eyes glowing to take in the sight of the man Gloria knew she hoped would be her own.
She seemed oblivious to the new danger she was in, that loving Barney could likely have put her entire life on the line, and the lives of the Seaton siblings as well.
“A Sweet Abduction in the Wild West” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Gloria Seaton lives a peaceful life with her brother, struggling with the failing ranch their late parents left them. However, their lives are about to change forever, when a fateful trip in town embroils them in a criminal campaign. Their mission: kidnapping a wealthy railroad heir. However, Gloria would never expect their victim to capture her heart as he did. Will she be able to handle her strong feelings or will she let her emotions be in charge, creating a mess?
Jack Rollins is a courageous, skilled and clever man of the West. He is self-made, rugged, but at the same time sophisticated and dapper; one of a kind. While he would never expect that he would end up falling in love with the woman who kidnapped him, soon enough he’ll realize that he needs more than his charm to escape. Will his alliance with his abductors allow them to find a way out of the trap they have all fallen into?
Tangled in a desperate situation, the heroes are led by a chain of events into despair. When the natural challenges seem to be their main obstacle, they are soon to realize that the wickedness in the hearts of their enemies is the darkest hurdle of all… Will the Seaton siblings find peace with the loves of their lives, or will they have to sacrifice their happiness – and even themselves? Will their love be enough to resolve the situation, or will they have to pay the ultimate price?
“A Sweet Abduction in the Wild West” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 90,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.