About the book
Love has a way of blossoming even at the darkest hour…
Irma Evans always had bright plans for the future.
But when her uncle makes a bet during one of his gambling sprees, she doesn’t pay the price; she is the price. Sold to a complete stranger, she runs away, leaving everything behind. Little does she know, she is about to fall into love’s embrace.
Having lost his parents at a young age, Anthony Maynard would do anything to keep his grandma happy. Even stay betrothed to a woman he doesn't love. But when the lovely Irma arrives, he’s about to find out the true meaning of love…
As they find themselves closer to happiness, dangerous threats are thrown their way. A man called the Predator is after the women of the town, causing chaos in his wake.
When Irma gets a strange letter from the unknown, Anthony confesses his attraction, promising her protection.
And just when they are about to solve the puzzle, Irma is nowhere to be found...
Thornedge, Montana, 1887
It had been a quiet evening at the store that evening and Irma Evans was walking home. She’d bid goodnight to Heck Carter, the proprietor, and taken a bag of windfall apples with her to make a pie. She enjoyed her job as a store clerk, thought she often dreamed of more. But there was little hope of that, not in a place like Thornedge, where it was said that dreams could be dreamed but never came true.
The town was growing quieter now, as drunkards staggered home and the saloons began to close. The oil lamps were burning in the upstairs windows and the shutters closed over the shops and businesses which lined the dusty main street. She had her shawl wrapped tightly around her, for the night was cold. In the sky above, a blanket of stars shone over the prairie, which stretched endlessly out on either side. The moon was high, and it cast a milky glow upon the town, bathing it in a silvery light.
She quickened her pace a little, glancing around her, lest anyone should be following. It was not safe for a young lady to be out late at night, but she had no choice. Her Uncle Felix would still be out playing cards and drinking late into the night. There was no one else to escort her home to the little house they shared on the outskirts of the town, but she was used to that.
Irma was not afraid; she had lived in this town long enough to know how to look after herself, should trouble arise. Beneath her shawl, she carried a knife, tucked into her belt, and as she stepped off the main street, her hand went instinctively to the hilt. For men were known to lurk in the shadows, waiting to prey on whoever should be unlucky enough to pass them. She’d been told of the dangers many times and heard whispers of the mysterious man who was snatching young women off the streets, the so-called “Predator” who had the town and county in the grip of fear.
But Irma knew that if the Predator were waiting for her, he’d get more than he bargained for, and she gripped the hilt of the knife tightly as she walked towards home. She had lived with her uncle ever since her mother had died some three years after her father’s mining accident. It had been a hard life, not helped by the fact that her uncle was a chronic drunkard. He was a laborer on one of the farms, at least he was when he could stand upright, and Irma had spent the past few years dreaming of escaping from him.
He was not a cruel man, nor unkind, but years of drinking and gambling had taken their toll. He had nothing except the breeches he stood up in and whatever happened to be in his back pocket at the time. It had been Irma who had kept the house and put food on the table, and if it had not been for Heck Carter offering her a job at the store , she and her uncle would have found themselves homeless and destitute.
Irma liked the peace and quiet of the house late at night. During the day, her uncle would be snoring in the backroom or staggering about and demanding money for liquor. But, at this time of night, whilst he was still out in whatever den of iniquity he found himself in, she could light the stove and make herself a cup of cocoa. Then she would settle back in the rocking chair with a book to read, for reading was her favorite pastime.
The life of a store clerk was not what Irma had imagined for herself as a child. She had always dreamed of being a schoolteacher, and despite her hard life, that dream remained. Each morning she would watch the children walking to the schoolhouse in the town and wonder what it must be like to fill young minds with knowledge and curiosity. It was a curiosity she too possessed, and she read just about every book she could get her hands on.
That evening, she let herself into the little house, looking from left to right lest anyone might be watching, and closing the door behind her, she let out a sigh of relief. The house was her sanctum, the one place she felt at peace, at least when her uncle wasn’t there. She lit the oil lamp on the table and set a match to the fire she had laid earlier in the stove. It was not long before she had a steaming cup of cocoa in one hand and was settling herself down in the rocking chair with her book. She was reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, and she had been longing to read the next chapter all evening and discover what happened next to the feisty Isabel Archer.
It was pointless going to bed before her uncle returned. He would crash and stagger about the house, demanding she fry him up some sausages, before falling asleep on the floor and not even eating them. It was the same every night, but Irma had found ways to cope, and one of them was by escaping in the pages of her favorite books.
Isabel had just arrived in Rome. Irma was picturing herself in that city too, amongst the classical splendors she’d seen library picture books. Suddenly, the sounds of her uncle returning came from outside and she closed the book with a sigh. She’d locked the door, as was her custom given the danger of the Predator, and he was fumbling with the key, cursing under his breath.
Irma paused for a moment before wearily getting up and opening the door for her uncle, who staggered inside. He stank of liquor, and his eyes were bloodshot; he shook his head and swayed from side to side.
“Do you need your bed, uncle?” she asked, pointing towards the door at the back of the house.
“No …” he slurred, “I … I need to tell you something, that’s what I need.”
“Then you’d better sit down,” Irma said, taking him by the arm and leading him to the rocking chair by the stove.
“No, no, I don’t need to sit down,” he said, “you listen to me because I’ve got news, bad news!”
“Is that right?” she said, for she was used to this ritual and to humoring him in his drunken state. “Well, why don’t I fry you up some sausages, and you can tell me?”
“Ain’t no money for sausages now,” he said, his eyes fixed on some point far in the distance, a confused smile playing across his face. “Ain’t no money for anything.”
“There’s sausages here, Uncle Felix, just you sit yourself down and I’ll have them cooked up in no time,” Irma replied, smiling to herself at the thought that in the morning, her uncle would remember nothing of what was now transpiring.
“No, you hear me out, it’s all gone. I lost it,” he said, shaking his head. “I lost it all to Grover Hurst,” and he laughed out loud, as Irma looked at him with a puzzled expression.
“What do you mean, uncle? Lost it?” she said, a note of concern entering her voice.
“I lost it, you hear me? I lost it, the house, everything in it, the money, you,” he replied, laughing again. “I lost it all.”
But Irma heard only one word in his slurred sentence, and she rounded on him, her face now set in anger.
“Me? What do you mean, you lost me? What are you talking about?” she cried, taking him by the shoulders and shaking him. “Start making some sense now, will you?”
“I’m making perfect sense, little lady, I wagered it all to Hurst, and I lost, you included. But if I’d won, we’d have had his ranch, and wouldn’t that have been a fine thing?” he said, and he belched loudly.
“I never … I never thought you’d be so stupid,” Irma said, her hand raised to her mouth in horror.
She could hardly think straight. Had he really lost the house? Their home? Everything in it? What did he mean by losing her?
“You quit calling me stupid, it ain’t stupid to try and win your fortune,” he said, staggering drunkenly to the stove, where the pan of cocoa was still steaming.
“But this is my home, our home, and you …” she began.
“And now you’ve got another home. Don’t worry; I saw to it that you’d be alright. I told him that if I lost, he had to take care of you, and he said he surely would and that he would marry you if I lost. And then I did,” her uncle replied, and promptly belched again.
“Marry? I’m not marrying anyone and certainly not Grover Hurst. That man is as odious as they come, and he’s already been married twice,” Irma said
“Now, you just listen to me, young lady, a wager is a wager, and he won you fair and square, you hear me? You’re marrying him, and once I make some money back, I’ll …” he began, but without thinking Irma slapped her uncle hard across the face, causing him to stagger back.
She pushed him away as he cried out in pain and she rushed from the room, tears flowing down her cheeks.
She flung herself upon her bed and beat her fists against the pillow, cursing her uncle for his stupidity. He had been foolish before, and there had been times when Heck Carter had loaned her money to cover his debts, but never had he been so stupid or so cruel. She could hear him staggering around the parlor, muttering to himself and cursing. She wanted to hit him again, the years of pent up anger now rising in her like an overwhelming wave.
“Darn you,” she said out loud, standing up and pacing to and fro across the room.
She stamped her foot and cursed again, imagining the awfulness of such a fate befalling her. Grover Hurst was a lecherous man, a womanizer twice her age, and with a potbelly and puckered face. He was the last person she had every intention of marrying.
Her uncle had gone quiet now, or rather he stopped ranting and raving, his words replaced by gentle snoring. Quietly she opened her bedroom door and peered out into the parlor, where the oil lamp was burning low. He was slumped in the rocking chair, a thin trail of spittle running down from his mouth, which was half-open. He was not an attractive man, graying hair and a paunchy stomach the result of a lifetime of alcohol and poor living. He’d be out cold for hours, and as she watched him, a plan began to form in her mind.
It was one she had often dreamt of, though the impetus to carry it out had never been this strong. There was nothing which bound Irma to Thornedge, except perhaps the kindness of Heck Carter, but he’d always urged her to get out of that sorry place.
“A frontier town is no place for a good lady like you,” he used to say, especially after a particularly hard evening at the store, when they’d been beset by cowboys, outlaws and no goods sniffing around, once, they’d even had hold up and she’d had to go running for the deputies.,
Was it misplaced loyalty to her uncle which had so far kept her in Thornedge? Or the thought that perhaps she could cure him of this wicked malady? Whatever it was that had kept her firmly tied to Thornedge and the man who had just bet her in a game of cards.
Well, Irma thought to herself, no more!
Quietly she returned to her room and reached below the mattress on her bed, feeling for the small hole she had made there many years ago. Stuffed inside was a wad of dollar bills. She secreted several a week, in a place that her uncle would not find them. It was her escape fund, money she had always known she would need, tonight being the night.
Her plan for escape was merely that, once she had escaped, she had no thought as to where she would go or what she would do. But anything was better than remaining in Thornedge now, and having gathered up a few meager possessions, she prepared to leave.
Her uncle was still fast asleep as she crept across the parlor. Next to him on the table was her copy of The Portrait of a Lady. Irma tiptoed over, careful not to step on the board in the center of the room, which always creaked when anyone stood on it. He stirred a little as she reached over him, and she thought about bashing him over the head with it as a parting gift. But despite his many failings, he was still her uncle, and she could forgive him his faults, even if she did not accept the things he did as a result of them.
But Irma knew that leaving now was the right thing to do. With the book tucked safely in her pocket and her few clothes and possessions stowed away in a bag, she left the house for the last time, closing the door quietly behind her. Outside, the air was cool, and there were no signs of life. The lamps in the upstairs windows had been extinguished and the street was quiet. She glanced around her, ensuring that no one was watching her from the shadows, glad to have the knife in her belt.
Behind the house was where her uncle kept his horse, a docile mare named Sandy, who Irma now untied. The horse was used to being ridden at unusual times and for unusual purposes, and she shook her mane and whinnied as Irma patted her.
“Come on, Sandy. You don’t want to wait around here; we’ve all been won by Grover Hurst and I don’t think he’d treat you too kindly either,” Irma said, pulling herself up on to the saddle.
She felt safer on the horse. Stroking the animal’s mane, she urged it on, hoping that the sound of the hooves would not draw attention to herself. But Thornedge was asleep and no one was paying attention to a solitary rider heading out of town. Irma cast a final glance back at the house, which had been her home these years past. She’d been happy there, in a way at least, but she knew that she could no longer stay there.
Irma had no intention of marrying for anything else but love, and certainly not as a prize in her uncle’s card game. He’d wake up the next morning and regret the whole thing, but by then she’d be long gone, and with that thought in mind, she urged Sandy onwards, taking the track north out of Thornedge and out towards freedom.
Plain River, Maynard Ranch
The animals needed feeding at Maynard Ranch that morning, just as they always did. But Anthony Maynard and Samuel Carver had been lax about their duties. The two young men had been up late the night before, drinking and playing cards with the other ranch hands. But with the sun rising, it was time to get up, especially as the sound of Margaret Maynard’s voice came echoing up the stairs to the attic in which they slept.
“Y’all get up now, you hear me? There’re animals that need seeing to, and I want to get going down into Thornedge before it gets busy. You know what that place is like on market days, and if there’s cattle coming in, I’ll be lucky to get back before noon if I don’t go now,” she said, sounding impatient, as Anthony rolled over.
He rubbed his eyes and glanced over to where Samuel was fast asleep on the bed opposite.
“Hey Sam, you awake?” he said, as Samuel rolled over and groaned.
“What time is it?” he said, rubbing his eyes.
“My grandmother’s calling us, so it must be passed seven o’clock; come on, we’d better get up,” Anthony said.
“Seven o’clock? Oh my, I’m never late for the animals,” Samuel said, leaping out of bed and pulling on his breeches.
“You’re allowed a tardiness once in a while, she won’t mind,” Anthony said, rising rather more slowly than his friend and pulling on his shirt.
“Still, your grandmother’s mighty kind to me, and I don’t want to let her down,” Samuel said, his shirt on back to front as he clambered down the ladder to the parlor, where Anthony could hear him wishing his grandmother a good morning.
He knew she’d not be cross, she doted on him and always had done, ever since he was a child. Now, even as a man of twenty-seven years old, she still loved him just as she always had done. It had not been easy for any of them, not since his father had died six years previously, but with the help of Samuel and the other farmhands, they’d kept the place going, and Maynard Ranch was just about one of the most successful homesteads in that part of Montana.
“Do you want some porridge before you go out?” his grandmother said, as he emerged down into the parlor, to find her and Samuel at the table.
“I can’t face food right now, grandmother,” he said, shaking his head at Samuel, who was already tucking into a bowl of porridge, covered in honey and brown sugar.
“You’ve got to eat something before a day on the ranch. There’re fences that need mending, and don’t forget the hay up in the barn loft. It needs bringing down for the animals, and you promised to do that today,” she said, tutting as she fussed around the kitchen.
“It’ll get done, Grandmother, I promise. Samuel and I will see to it. I need to go down to Thornedge shortly to see the Sheriff” he said, taking a seat opposite Margaret and winking at Samuel, who grinned.
“Well, I hope you do, because I’m taking Liza in the trap down to Thornedge too. We’ve got fabrics to buy, and I need new threads too, else we’ll have no mending done on this ranch for a month,” she said.
“It’ll get done, along with all the rest,” Anthony replied, shaking his head.
Liza was the servant girl, a loyal and faithful little thing who had been with the family for many years and who was stood at the stove stirring a pan of porridge. She turned and smiled at Anthony, who grinned at her, as his grandmother continued to issue instructions for the day.
“And you see to it that the eggs are collected, I know that’s normally Liza’s job, but I need her with me on the trap, you hear me?” she said, turning to Anthony, who smiled.
“I hear you, Grandmother, now you’d best get going, else there’ll be no thread left in the seamstress’s shop,” he said, and she cuffed his ear and laughed.
“Don’t be so cheeky young man, but you’re right, we’d best be going, Liza. Come now, go get your bonnet we must look respectful coming in from the country,” she said, looking herself up and down in the mirror.
His grandmother was, despite her age, a handsome woman, and though her hair was graying, her light blue eyes remained keen, and her face retained the prettiness of her youth. She was dressed in red, with a white bonnet and basket on her arm, with an air of a bygone age about her.
Anthony had always thought that, and he loved to hear the old stories she would tell about life on the frontier when she was a girl. Her parents had taken her out west when she was just five years old, and they’d settled at Maynard Ranch when there was nothing about them but endless prairie and the open sky. It was still much the same, of course, the landscape, at least. But the railroad had brought more folks in, and the land around about them was now all taken. So that the ranch was no longer an island in a sea of waving grass, but one of many homesteads farmed in hope of the American dream, but still a place that expressed that frontier spirit which Anthony’s grandmother embodied.
“We’ll not be long, Anthony. But when we get back, I want to see that haybarn emptied and a basket of eggs on this table; a night of drinking or not, you’ve both got jobs to do,” she said, taking Liza’s arm as they walked out to the trap in the yard.
“Yes, Mrs. Maynard,” Samuel called after her, and she turned and rolled her eyes at him.
“‘Yes, Mrs. Maynard,’ ‘Right away, Mrs. Maynard,’” Anthony said, mimicking his friend, who just laughed.
“So what if I’m polite to your grandmother? Come on, we’ve got jobs to do,” Samuel said, scrubbing off his porridge bowl in the basin of water.
“We’ve got time, Sam, come on, sit for a moment. She’ll be gone for hours; you know what she’s like when she goes down to Thornedge. She’ll have Liza trailing around every shop in the place and then she’ll insist on taking tea in Charleston’s Tearooms. It’ll be gone noon before she’s back,” Anthony replied, stretching out and placing his hands behind his head and his feet up on the table.
“I’m going to see to the animals,” Samuel replied, “you shirk off if you want,” and he picked up his hat and strode out of the door into the ranch yard.
“You always try to please,” Anthony muttered, and with a sigh, he followed his friend outside, “I’m going to head down into Thornedge, I want to see the Sheriff about reports of some rustlers over in the next county. I’d hate to think we weren’t prepared for them.”
Samuel was already crossing over to the barn, a testament to his preferment for the company of animals to people. The two had been friends ever since Samuel had come to live at Maynard Ranch when he was eighteen years old. He was an orphan, and Anthony’s grandfather had found him sleeping on the streets in Thornedge and brought him home, much too Margaret’s surprise. Ever since then he’d been treated as part of the family, and the two men were more like brothers than friends.
Anthony followed Samuel into the barn, where the pigs were snorting loudly, and Samuel began feeding them mush from a bucket, as Anthony saddled his horse. They’d be ready for slaughter soon, and Anthony slapped one on its rear, causing it to start and run across the sty towards Samuel, almost knocking him over.
“Hey, quit it,” Samuel said, stumbling out of the pig’s way, as Anthony started laughing.
“What’s with you today, Samuel, you’re about as miserable as a condemned man; cheer up. I’m only having a bit of fun with you,” Anthony said, laughing, as Samuel scowled at him.
“Yea, well, it’s not funny, alright,” Samuel replied, and the two men fell silent, Anthony casting the occasional glance over at his friend, puzzled at his mood.
“I know what it is; you’ve not been downtown for a while, have you? You’re fed up of sharing a room with me every night, and you want some fun, is that it?” Anthony said, for Samuel often spent the night away in Thornedge, staying at one of the boarding houses and enjoying the fun of the saloon.
Samuel made no reply, and patted the pig’s head, before climbing out of the sty and crossing to the hen run. Anthony followed him, causing the chickens to scatter, as he leaped into the run and began hunting around for eggs.
“I won’t stop you from going, Sam. My grandmother doesn’t mind, you’re always back in time to work,” he said, and Samuel turned to him and nodded.
“Maybe you’re right. I’m sorry for being short with you. I could do with a night in the town, a few drinks in the saloon. The ranch hands are fun enough, but they’re not …” he began.
“They’re not a pretty barmaid or a saloon singer,” Anthony said, causing Samuel to blush, “I know your game, Sam. I can read you like a book, that is if I could read.”
“It’s alright for you; you’re engaged to be married. Very soon you’ll have the attentions of a pretty woman and be set for life. Some of us don’t have that luxury,” Samuel replied, glancing up from his egg collecting with a sorry look upon his face.
“It rather depends who you’re engaged to, doesn’t it?” Anthony replied, sighing.
It was true what Samuel said, for Anthony was engaged to be married. His fiancée was a Miss Betty Holt, the daughter of a local rancher named Patrick Holt. She was a plain girl, but not unattractive, with brown hair and large hazel eyes, the apple of her father’s eye. There was little wrong with her, except perhaps a slight snobbishness born out of years of being spoilt by her father, but the simple fact was that Anthony had no desire to marry her and had only agreed to the betrothal to keep his grandmother happy.
She had been so pleased when the chance of marriage had been proposed by Patrick. It would ensure the continuation of the family, and she had spoken fondly of the prospect of living to see her first great-grandchild. Anthony had felt duty-bound to agree and the marriage was set for sometime later that summer, though he had not yet committed to a specific date. He envied Samuel; the freedom he enjoyed. Even though a settled home was the ambition of many a man in his position, it seemed as though he were already trapped into something far from what he wanted.
“Come now, Betty’s alright. You could do worse. Didn’t your grandmother suggest Louisa Belle; she’d only met her once and came back here talking as though it were a signed deal,” Samuel said, laughing, as Anthony grimaced.
“Don’t remind me, it was only because Reverend Wayne quietly suggested she may be of loose morals that the matter was dropped,” Anthony said, remembering his relief when the saloon girl gave up her intentions of marriage and took the railroad back to New York City.
“You’ve got to marry sometime, why not now? And why not Betty?” Samuel replied as the two men carried the basket of eggs back to the house.
“Oh, I don’t know, I just … I don’t love her, that’s why,” Anthony replied, sounding far more matter of fact than he intended.
“Who said anything about love? You’ve said yourself you’re doing it to keep your grandmother happy, and you call me a suck-up,” Samuel said, shaking his head and laughing.
But Anthony knew he was right, and as he rode down towards Thornedge later that morning, he could not help but feel the impending fate hanging above him, a fate over which he had little control.
The road out of Thornedge was on one of the old wagon trails towards Utah. Back in the early frontier days, it had been busy with homesteaders journeying from the east to make a new life for themselves, but with the coming of the railroads the old trails had fallen into disuse, though local folks still used the road, and along its course lay any number of farmsteads and ranches, stretching off far into the distance beyond.
But at night the road was quiet, a place for those whom others might avoid lurking unseen, waiting for unwary travelers. Irma knew this all too well, and she had often heard tales of outlaws and outlaws on the trail, those they had robbed arriving into Thornedge desperate and in need.
She knew the risks, but the road out of town was the only one to take, and so she had no choice but to do so. She was not a naturally fearful person, far from it, and her upbringing had taught her to stand up for herself, just as she had to her uncle that night. But even so, she was still wary of the shadows and looked around her in trepidation as the trail rose up into scrubby prairie land above the town.
The excitement of escaping was giving way to the realization that she needed a plan. It would not do to be out alone on the trail for long, alone and unaccompanied. A woman in such a position would soon find herself taken advantage of, and despite her boldness, Irma knew that she was vulnerable. She had decided to make for the town of Deadman’s Basin; there she would sell Sandy and take a ticket on the railroad to New York City. Once in the east, she’d work out her next move, but she knew from the tales of men and women in the saloon that New York City was a place of opportunity. Perhaps even the place she could make her dream of becoming a schoolteacher come true.
It was a happy thought, and despite the darkness and loneliness of the trail, Irma felt happier than she had in a long while. Why she had not left long ago, she didn’t know. She’d come close at times, but her uncle had always seemed so helpless and in need. But now he’d brought his own fate upon himself, and it was time for Irma to realize her own dreams and ambitions.
She was lost in these thoughts when a sound in the distance caused her to startle. It was the neighing of a horse, and Sandy pricked her ears up and stopped dead in her tracks.
“It’s alright, girl, woah there, you’re alright,” Irma said, trying to reassure herself as much as the horse.
It was not unusual, she told herself, for others to be riding along the trail at this late hour. It may even be another solitary rider like herself; the two would pass one another and perhaps exchange a greeting, that would be all. Her thoughts were more confident than she felt, and her hand went to the hilt of the knife. Its reassuring presence taking the edge off her anxiety.
Irma urged Sandy on, and they came to the brow of a hill, where the scrubby trees gave way to prairie land below. There was no sign of another horse, and Irma wondered if she had imagined the whole thing. Across the moonlit prairie, all she could see was the grasses moving gently in the breeze. Far in the distance were the mountains, at the foot of which she knew was the town of Deadman’s Basin, though she had never been there.
In fact, Irma was about to go further east, than she had ever done in her life. She had rarely left Thornedge, for she had nowhere to go, and her uncle rarely made trips away himself. Once, she had been sent to stay with an old aunt in the south, but she could barely remember anything of the trip, except being bitten by a dog and stung by wasps in her aunt’s garden.
“We’re just imagining things,” she whispered to the horse, and she urged the animal on.
But Sandy would not move, and it was as though she were rooted to the spot, her head shaking up and down as she whinnied.
“It’s alright, girl, see, there’s nothing there,” Irma said, patting Sandy’s mane, “but we don’t want to stay here. It’ll be light soon, and we’ll get some rest, just a few more miles and …”
But before she could finish speaking, a hand had grabbed hold of her and pulled from the horse’s back, sending her falling hard to the ground. She let out a scream and felt the acrid taste of a gloved hand about her mouth.
“Well, well, well, what have we here? A pretty little lady out all alone on the trail. It’s not safe out here, miss. You never know who’s around,” a man’s voice said, as another laughed.
They had come upon her from the undergrowth at the side of the path and must have been watching her for some time. The speed with which they had attacked her had taken her completely by surprise, and now the man had her in an iron grip as she struggled in his arms.
“Keep her quiet,” another man said, and Irma watched as he began rummaging through her saddlebag.
“Let go of me,” she screamed, biting the man’s finger through his glove and causing him to yelp in pain.
“Feisty little thing, aren’t you? We’ll have none of your blather,” he said and struck her around the head with a blow that sent her reeling backwards into his arms.
“Just keep her quiet,” the other man said.
Irma was dazed, but she managed to keep her eyes open, listening to what the men were saying.
“There’s nothing here worth much, what’s she got on her?” the man rummaging through the bag said.
“A wad of dollars,” the other replied, his hand searching through her pockets and pulling the money out triumphantly.
“Well, where does a little lady like this get all that money from, I wonder? Did Daddy give it to you, lucky thing, aren’t you? Well, it’s ours now,” he said, laughing, as his companion pocketed it.
“And this, well now, you could have done someone a nasty injury with that,” the man holding her said, as he pulled out the knife from her belt.
The other man whistled and took the knife, bringing it menacingly close to Irma’s face, as she struggled and whimpered.
“Oh, buck up, little lady, we’re not that kind of outlaws. We’d never hurt a lady, and certainly not one as pretty as you, would we Edward?” he said, smiling at her, his face illuminated in the moonlight.
“Indeed, we would not, Joseph,” the other replied, and they laughed.
The one called Edward kept Irma in a tight grip and despite her fears, she gave up her struggle against him as Joseph went through her bags. In the end, they decided to take only the horse and money, along with some of the food she had packed.
“And what’s this?” Joseph asked, holding up her copy of The Portrait of a Lady. “You must be an educated sort to have this, what are you doing out on the trail so late at night?”
Edward released his hand from her mouth, and she gulped in the fresh air, her mouth tasting of his glove.
“Let me go,” she said, her voice breaking as she began to sob.
“Oh, I’m sorry, did we frighten you? That was never our intention, was it Edward?” Joseph said, tutting to himself.
“Most certainly not, Joseph, we just don’t find that folks take kindly to being asked to hand over their possessions to two gentlemen in need,” and the two men laughed again, as Joseph threw the book onto the floor and stamped upon it.
At length, they prepared to leave binding her wrists and ankles with cord so that any hope of pursuit would not be realized.
“We don’t like doing this, but you’ll be running to see the Sheriff no doubt, and we’d hate for you to shin out and get a good start on us,” Edward said, stuffing a dirty rag into her mouth.
“Well, there, aren’t you a pretty looking little thing?” Edward said as the two men stood over her.
“It seems a shame to leave her out here where anyone could find her. Just count yourself lucky little lady that we are honorable men and respect a woman’s dignity, it could have been a lot worse,” Joseph said.
Irma spat out the rag from her mouth and began to scream, but quick as a flash, Edward was upon her, forcing it back inside.
“You quit your blathering, you hear me? Do you want the whole trail to know you’re here?” he said, raising his hand.
“She’s only going to scream again when we’re gone,” Joseph said, and before Irma could spit out the rag again, he had raised his hand and struck her a blow about the head, which sent her reeling to the ground in a haze.
“There, that’ll see to her until the morning. Then she can scream all she wants,” he said.
“Or we could just kill her,” Edward said.
“If we kill her, then we’ll have a price on our heads so high we’ll never leave the state. You want to end up in the Calaboose and have a noose around your neck? It’s better just to leave her here, someone’ll find her. But by then, we’ll be long gone. Come on now. It’ll be getting light soon,” Joseph said, and with his partner in agreement the two men left, taking a reluctant Sandy with them.
Irma managed to roll herself over, and she watched as the two outlaws walked off along the trail. The ties on her wrists were smarting and the more she struggled, the more they cut viciously into her skin. The blow to her head was hurting more now, and a trickle of blood ran down into her eye, her vision becoming bleary.
“Stay awake,” she said to herself, gagging on the foul-tasting rag which Edward had stuffed inside her mouth.
But she knew better than to scream again, not after their threats to kill her. The cords on her legs were looser and only roughly tied, and she managed to crawl some distance back towards the trail. The rocks cut into her knees and the sand flew up into her eyes as she struggled along, but with a final effort, she was back on the path and knew that eventually, someone would come along, though whether they would be friendly remained to be seen.
The sun was just coming up on the horizon, casting its early morning light upon the prairie. Irma began to cry, knowing that now all was lost, for she would surely be forced to return to her uncle now, her money and possessions all gone. A few feet away lay the copy of The Portrait of a Lady, splayed open and stamped upon, its pages torn. It felt like a symbol of her life at that moment, the hopes and dreams of something better now discarded.
Again, she struggled with the cords that bound her wrists, wincing at the pain and letting out a cry as she felt the warmth of blood trickling down her arm. Her head was becoming heavy, aching and dull. The wound to her forehead throbbing in pain. She tried her best to remain conscious, but she could feel herself slipping away, as though her whole body were shutting down.
“Stay aw …” she muttered, “sta …” but before she knew it, she was gone, lying unconscious upon the trail, her shattered dreams about her.
Irma blinked as she opened her eyes, her left eye congealed and sticky with blood. For a moment, she had no recollection of where she was, but as she tried to move, the memories of her ordeal came flooding back. Her whole body ached, and as she tried to sit up, the cords which bound her wrists cut once again into her flesh.
“Oh, where … Sandy?” she called out, the taste of that foul-smelling rag still in her mouth, which was dry and parched.
But the horse was gone, and no sounds came from around about, just a gentle breeze and the swishing of the prairie grass. The sun was up now, and she could see around her more clearly, though the pain in her head caused her to shy away from the glare of the sun. She was on the trail, close to where the outlaws had robbed her, above her the wide-open blue skies, stretching endlessly into the beyond.
“Is anyone there” she called out, “can anyone hear me? Help me!”
But there was no one about, and she guessed that it was still early, the sun not yet a quarter of its path up into the sky. Her stomach ached with hunger, but it was her thirst which she knew would kill her first. The day would be hot, and if she didn’t drink, then she’d soon die, prey to whatever wild animals might come stalking her as she lay, helpless and tied.
If she could just get the cords off her hands, then she would be free, and with a further effort, she tried to remove them again. But all she did was cut herself further, for the cords were tied tight, and with blood seeping down her wrists she gave up, sighing and sobbing as she rolled over in the sand.
It was then that she heard the unmistakable sound of a horse approaching. A regular clip-clop along the track. There were wheels too, and Irma sat up, ready to call out, as soon as whoever it was came into sight. The wave of relief that went through her was palpable, but it was matched too with the fear that the driver of the trap could well be just as treacherous as the men who did this to her.
She’d known when she set out that it was inadvisable for a woman to be alone on the old wagon trail. This could be the Predator himself coming, and then she’d have more than cuts to her wrist and blow to the head to worry about. A moment later a horse, followed by a horse and trap, appeared around the corner, and Irma was relieved to see two women riding in it, and a man in the saddle.
They hadn’t noticed her at first, and it was only as the trap came within a few feet that one of them let out a scream, just as Irma was about to call out to them.
“Ma’am, sir, look, look, a girl on the side of the track,” the younger of the two said, and she pulled up the horse’s reins, as her companion also let out a cry of horror.
“Oh, my goodness, the poor dear. Whatever has happened to her? Come now, we must help her, quickly,” the older woman said, as the man on horseback leapt down and rushed to Irma’s side.
“I …” Irma began, but the man shushed her and began fumbling with the cords that bound her wrists.
“You’re alright. My goodness, what has happened to you? Outlaws or some wickedness for sure. This trail is becoming more lawless by the day; you’re safe now, though,” He said as the cords were removed, and Irma collapsed into his arms.
“Here sir, some water for the poor thing,” Liza said, passing the man a cup from the bucket meant for the horse.
“Try and drink this,” and he raised the cup to her lips, as Irma slurped the water in and thanked her profusely, “slowly now, that’s it, slowly does it. My name is Anthony and this is my grandmother Margaret Maynard, and Liza, you’re safe now. What’s your name?”
“Ir … Irma,” she gasped.
Her head felt heavy once again, the relief of having been found too much to bear. She fell forward, the water spilling everywhere, unable to keep conscious any longer. The last thing she remembered was Anthony’s arms about her, and the soothing words repeated.
She was not unconscious for long, and when she awoke, she found herself lying in the back of a trap, jolting along the track. She rolled over and groaned, trying to sit up.
“She’s coming around,” Liza said, turning around and placing her hand gently on Irma’s forehead. “It’s alright, miss, we’re taking you home.”
“Home?” Irma said, “No, no, I can’t go home,” for home was the last place she wanted to be.
“To our home,” Margaret said, her hands on the horse’s reins, as Anthony rode at their side. “You need patching up properly, and we need to find out where you’re from. But don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe. You’ve had a nasty ordeal, now just lie there, we’ll be there soon.”
Irma nodded, thankful at least that she was not being sent back to Thornedge or to her uncle. If her plan had worked, she would be halfway to Deadman’s Basin by now, and her uncle would be none the wiser, but now she dreaded being sent back and into the clutches of Grover Hurst and the ill-gotten wager.
As the trap came to a halt, Irma looked up. Around her were ranch buildings and large barn. She could hear cattle and men at work some distance off, the sounds of an ax chopping into wood and pigs grunting, but her head was still woozy and keeping her eyes open for long hurt her head.
“We’re here now, Thornedge Ranch, let’s get you inside,” Margaret said, as the man lifted Irma gently down from the trap.
It was a strange sensation to be entirely in the hands of others. Irma had no power over herself and was being forced to trust entirely in the kindness of strangers. But so far, they seemed nice enough, and Irma had no reason to doubt that they would not do as they had promised.
The two women were talking over where they should lay her and who they would send down to Thornedge to bring up Doctor Isherwood to tend her. Irma was listening with her eyes closed, a further cup of water having restored something of her humanity
“Whatever is this?” a voice said,
“It’s alright, Sam. We found her on the trail about a mile away. She was in a nasty way; some rogues had tied her up and robbed her. They’d left her for dead. If we hadn’t come along when we did Lord knows what might have happened to her,” Anthony said, as Irma blinked and opened her eyes.
Above her stood the two women who had rescued her, their faces set in motherly expressions of concern. And now she got a proper look at the man who’d rescued her he was, perhaps a few years older than herself, an attractive man with short black hair and blue eyes. He looked down at her with a worried expression on his face, and as she looked up at him, he shook his head.
“How could someone do this to an innocent little thing like this? I’m sorry for your ordeal, miss. and I assure you that you’re safe here with us. If any outlaws try anything here, I’ve got ranch hands to see them off, not to mention my grandmother and Liza, you should see them with a pitchfork in hand,” he said, “ain’t no one going to mess with them.”
She smiled weakly at him and nodded her head, a pain shooting through her wound and causing her to wince.
“Liza, go get a cold cloth for her and close the curtains. It’s too bright in here for the poor thing,” Margaret said, stroking her head. “You just try and rest now; when you’re strong enough, you can tell us what’s happened. Until then you just rest, you hear me? Do you want something to eat?”
Irma nodded, and Margaret had Liza bring some porridge, which she struggled to eat, though she knew she must.
“I need to go off and see to the ranch hands, but I’ll be back,” Anthony said, as Liza knelt at Irma’s side.
“Don’t force it now,” Liza said, as Irma choked a little and spat it back into the bowl.
“Let her sleep for now, we got some water down her, that’s the important thing,” Margaret said, and the two women left Irma alone.
She could hear them talking on the other side of the parlor, but it was not long before a wave of fatigue overcame her, and she closed her eyes. What a terrible ordeal it had been, but now she was safe, and all she wanted was to sleep and forget what had happened. As her eyes closed, she pictured Anthony and his grandmother, they were so kind, and she was ever so grateful to them. Would they let her stay? The thought of being returned to her uncle filled her with dread. But before she could think anymore, she fell into a deep sleep, punctuated with dreams of outlaws and the terrors of the trail.
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