Authors: Tracey Bateman
You bought each of the
Love Comes Softly
books as fast as Jeanette Oke and her publisher could get them on the shelves. Those books began my love for prairie romance when I was only ten years old and twenty-seven years later, I still love reading historical romance about the pioneers who dug out this country one shovelful at a time. And now I'm privileged to write them as well. Thank you for helping me frame my future. I love you.
The folks of Hawkins, Kansas, had only two reasons toâ¦
Fury exploded in Fannie as she stared after the bullheadedâ¦
A twig cracked somewhere behind Fannie, causing her legs toâ¦
The sun peeked through wispy eastern clouds with brilliant streaksâ¦
Blake hid a grin at the girl's oath. He wasâ¦
Blake paced outside of Fannie's wagon while Sadie Barnes lookedâ¦
Blake stretched out fully on his bedroll and stared intoâ¦
Fannie winced as the wagon wheels jerked over endless rutsâ¦
Two fierce emotions shocked through Blake within seconds of oneâ¦
The setting sun cast a glorious red glow over theâ¦
Blake knew better than to let down his guard. Still,â¦
Toni knew something was wrong the second Fannie left Blakeâ¦
“Aw, Fannie, none of the other kids do lessons onâ¦
Blake stood tall on the bed of a nearly emptyâ¦
Fannie sat outside the circle listening to the mournful soundsâ¦
As the wagon train left the flat plains of Kansasâ¦
Fannie kept her gaze straight ahead as the wagon rolledâ¦
Fannie reached for the pistol sitting on the seat betweenâ¦
Blake's relief knew no end as he stared into theâ¦
The folks of Hawkins, Kansas, had only two reasons to get excited on any given day. One: the birth of a baby (which only happened in the rooms above the saloons but, nonetheless, gave cause for a stir), and two: a wagon train making camp along the creek just outside of town for one, two, sometimes as many as three days if the Oregon-bound settlers were ahead of schedule and needed to make repairs to more than a couple of wagons.
Today there were no babies reported born, but the town was up in arms just the same, and that could mean only one thing: The first wagon train of the year was about to make camp just beyond the town's border.
“It's a'comin'!” The disembodied shout from outside the store window caught Fannie Caldwell's attention and brought an intake of air to her lungs. Every nerve ending beckoned her to run to the door and join the small gathering of towns
folkâmen, mostly, except for the occasional fancy woman venturing sleepily from one saloon or another, face paint smeared, shawls drawn over petticoats and chemises.
As much as Fannie longed to venture out herself, she knew better. She could feel Tom's eyes boring into her. Those dark, leering eyes that followed her wherever she went. Hour after hour. Day after endless day. Year after year. She had to remain alive and whole if she was going to keep Kip and Katie alive and whole, so she stayed put, keeping her gaze focused on the account books open on the counter in front of her.
Grunting, Tom pulled his bloated body from the wobbly wooden chair at the end of the counter. Disgust burned a hole through Fannie as the middle-aged storekeeper lumbered across the scarred plank floor. He grabbed hold of the leather latch, yanked open the door, and stepped out into the dusty street.
“Gal,” he called with gruff command, “you best git your head out of them books and ready the store for business. This one looks to be a long trainâpert near a hunnerd wagons I'm guessin'.”
Fannie's heart lifted at the news. A wagon train that big could surely hide three small people like her and the twins. Maybe things were finally starting to go right for a change. A grim smile tugged at Fannie's lips, but she squelched it before Tom could see. No sense raising his suspicions.
“Ya hear me? Or do I need to help yer hearin' a mite?”
They both knew he wouldn't beat her just now. There was no one else to run the store for the next few hours. Too much money to be made and not enough time for her to take
a beating, then pull herself together for what promised to be a busy day of selling. “Yes, Tom. I heard you.”
“Git to it, then.”
With a sigh, Fannie did as she was told. She'd learned long ago the price of disobedience. Not that she was a lily-livered coward. But after three years of being indentured to Tom, she knew all too intimately the pain of connecting with his fists, boots, the flat of his hand. And tonight there was too much at stake for her to risk provoking a beating she might not be able to recover from very quickly.
“Yes, sir.” The sound of her soft submission masked the wild rebellion nearly exploding from her heart. The subservient reply would have fooled even the most astute bystander. Thankfully, it fooled Tom. It had to. If her plan was going to work.
Fannie shut the account book and shoved it beneath the counter. Next, she set to work dusting shelves and raising prices 50 percent as Tom always insisted. Enough so that he made substantially more of a profit than his already overpriced goods demanded, but not so much that the average traveler, hungry for the sight of a town and the inside of a dry goods store, would balk too much before plunking down the price.
“Where's Kip?” Tom barked. The planks groaned beneath his mass as he reentered the store and waddled to his seat. “These folk'll need someone to help carry packages.” Another two bits per customer. Another shot of whiskey for Tom.
Fannie forced herself to maintain an air of calm. “He'll be along soon. Remember, last night you told him to go to the
creek this morning and catch fish for tonight's supper?”
“Huh? Thet right?”
No. It was a flat-out lie, but he'd never know it. The drunken fool. Kip and Katie weren't anywhere near the creek. They were loading the wagon with the last of the supplies they'd smuggled out last night after Tom drank himself unconscious. Lookouts had been reporting back on the wagon train's forward progress for the past two days. The three siblings had gone to work finalizing preparations at the first word. If all went according to plan, by the time Tom drank himself into the same inevitable stupor tonight, she and the twins would be long gone.
When the first wagon came into view through the open door, Fannie could no longer resist the pull to stare. The longing she kept carefully hidden. Tom had spoken the truth. All told, there must be a hundred wagons, maybe more. She knew they would pull through town and make camp just the other side, next to the creek.
Within the hour, the first wave of pioneers would find their way into the store. By nightfall, her body would ache with fatigue. Tom would hover for a while then, as the money box got fatter and fatter, his excitement would grow, and he'd leave her to the wagon train customers and visit one or both of the local saloons. Eventually, he'd stagger home rip-roaring drunk. She wouldn't think about what would happen later, but afterwards, when he fell into a stupor, her plan would fall into place. Three years of meticulous planning. She finally had everything she needed to take Katie and Kip away from this godforsaken dirt pile of a town. If a person could
even call it that. Two saloons, a smithy, and Tom's trade store. That pretty much summed up the town's commerce.
Tom made a killing during the hot, windy days of summer on the Kansas plains, when the slow-moving wagon trains rattled through, ready to replenish their supplies or buy fripperies to make the pioneers feel normal again after weeks on the dusty trail. Unfortunately, Tom's seasonal mother lode never led him any closer to wealth or respectability. He wasted every penny during the winter keeping his gullet filled with whiskey.
That was just fine with Fannie. The longer he stayed away, the less likely he'd be in any shape to mess with her. Or Katie. Katie's plight worried her the most. So far Tom kept his distance from her twelve-year-old sister; but lately, Fannie had noticed his black eyes roving over strawberry blond hair, the budding figure, wide pale green eyes that astoundingly still shone with innocence. All these features were precursors of the beautiful young woman the little girl would soon becomeâonly a fool couldn't see Katie's potentialâand even Tom wasn't that much of a fool. Fannie clenched her fist against the sudden knot in her gut. The pig would never touch a hair on her sister's head. Not while she, Fannie, had breath in her body.
Fannie shifted as familiar anger twisted through her like a prairie storm. He'd never get within ten feet of Katie. That was part of the bargain. But then, when had Tom ever kept to a bargain?
Three years earlier, Fannie's body had trembled with grief, fear, outrage, betrayal as she watched the money exchange
hands from the storekeeper to her stepfather, Silas, and knew there was no turning back. Nothing was going to save them. The sale was final.
Silas had refused to meet her eyes as he cleared his throat, pocketed the fifty dollars the fat, stinking storekeeper had just handed over, and slipped out the door of the dusty storeroom without a word of farewell. The no-good stepfather couldn't even wait until Ma and their baby brother were cold in the ground before breaking his promise to take care of the three of them.
Nine-year-old Katie had innocently whispered, “Where's Pa going, Fannie?”
“He's not our pa,” Fannie said with great ferocity. Their pa had been a fine, decent man full of laughter, love, and stories of the Wild West. His death had been Fannie's blackest day. Until Silas met Tom.
Fannie had slipped her arm around the little girl's shoulders and jerked her own chin high, refusing the threatening tears burning her eyes. It was okay for the kids to cry. But not her. She was in charge now, and she had to stay strong if she was going to give the twins strength.
Tom's tongue slid over his sickening, thick lips as he eyed her up and down. Eyed Katie and gave Kip a quick dismissive glance. “Now, I don't want any trouble out of ya's,” he grunted, moving his girth forward, first one massive leg, then the next until he stood directly in front of Fannie. “Thet clear?”
His stench nearly knocked her over as he towered above her, and she fought to keep from retching. When she didn't
answer right away, he grabbed her chin with two meaty fingers and forced her to look into his lustful gaze. “I done asked ya a question.”
“Yes, sir. It's perfectly clear that you prefer us to be obedient.” She forced perfect grammar, perfect diction, and just a touch of arrogance as she spoke like her Eastern-born mother had always taught her.
His bushy, unkempt eyebrows pushed together in a frown, and his eyes clouded over with stupid confusion. A wave of superiority washed across Fannie's heart. This fool would never win a battle of wits with even the dumbest dog, let alone someone with an ounce of brains. If she could keep him from hitting them, she'd have no trouble fulfilling the two years she'd heard Tom agree to. Two years, he'd said. When she turned sixteen, she'd be fully grown and old enough to make her own decisions. Then she could leave and take care of the twins on her own.
But he had not kept his word and one year after her service should have ended, Fannie found herself and her brother and sister still trapped, slaves to a cruel pig of a man who had no intention of ever letting them go, short of his deathâ¦or theirs.
Fannie shook herself from the familiar resentment that accompanied her memories and the injustice of a broken word, the first group of pioneers descended upon the tiny store. The travelers were no different in demeanor than so many others Fannie had observed over the past three years. Weary, slumped bodies showed the wear of the endless work that accompanied life on the trail, but the eyesâ¦oh that crystal
spark of hope that shone brightly in the men and women who dreamed of a lush paradise. The land of milk and honey. The Promised Land.
Fannie smiled at each as they came to the counter to purchase the exorbitantly priced goods. No one seemed to mind. She studied each face. A line of freshly scrubbed children followed their parents.
“For a tablecloth and curtains once we get our cabin built,” the woman explained with a hesitant upward curve of full lips that mirrored those of her children as she presented a length of blue gingham.
Fannie found herself relaxing in the presence of this smiling family. She hoped they would become good friends. And if she wasn't mistaken, a couple of the children were around Kip and Katie's age. That was good. Maybe they'd learn to smile too.
The door swung open, bringing with it a blast of hot, late-spring wind. Fannie caught her breath as a tall form filled the doorway. He wore buckskins and a pair of moccasins and had the lean but well-muscled appearance of a man accustomed to the hard, disciplined life on the trailâthe life Fannie had only dreamed of. He stepped out of the blinding sunlight, and as his features came into view, Fannie's mouth went dry. Dark hair curled on the ends, and dark eyes scanned the room as he entered the store and took ownership of everyone's attentionâeven Toni, the town's most famous harlot, who Fannie could see was making a beeline for the man. He walked with an air of confidence that somehow made Fannie feel brave. No doubt about it. This fellow had to be the
wagon masterâjust the man she was looking for.
Blake Tanner cast a glance around the scratch of a general store and pressed his lips into a grim line. Marked-up prices and second-rate goods. He knew this place well. And half a dozen just like it between here and the Platte River. He'd done his best to warn the folks not to pay the prices, but the travelers needed a diversion and ignored his advice. Well, let them learn the hard way. He'd done his best. The choice belonged to them. But this would be the last time he gave in very easily. If they didn't reach across the mountains before winter, they'd have to hole up somewhere. With this many people to feed, who knew if they had enough supplies to last the several months they'd be stuck. He couldn't bear the thought of losing even one hopeful pioneer who had signed on to his wagon train, trusting him to get them from Independence to Oregon in one piece.
If he'd had his druthers, the wagon train would never have stopped, but repairs needed to be made, and there was no smithy among them. Hawkins afforded them the one available blacksmith for at least another monthâprovided he could keep the train on schedule; otherwise, no telling how much longer it might be before another opportunity arose. And Blake knew from leading half a dozen trains over the Rockies that he'd lose at least fifteen wagons, maybe more, before rolling into the lush, Willamette Valley if the wagons weren't strengthened before the crossing. With repairs, they might only lose three or four.
Better to allow a one-day, two at the most, stopover now.
The store was filling up fast with members of his wagon
train. Blake fought the temptation to escape the suffocation he always felt in confined spaces. But the weight of responsibility hung on him like an anvil, and he wanted to keep an eye on things. Especially on Willard James. Blake couldn't quite put his finger on whyâ¦but he didn't trust the father of six. He'd figured out long ago if a man seemed too friendly, too generous, too hardworking, he was most likely too good to be true. And this Willard was the friendliest, most generous, and hardest-working fellow he'd ever met. One of those traits would have been enough to raise Blake's suspicions; all three traits made the man a downright criminal in Blake's mind. And he was taking no chances he had a thief in his trainâsomeone who might just give the train a bad reputation. News traveled fast in these parts. One disgruntled, wronged rider who went ahead and started whispering discontent could induce a posse to meet his wagon train on the outskirts of the next town. Or the next. And sometimesâlike nowâthe future safety and success of the wagon train depended upon being allowed to enter a town and buy supplies.