Authors: Victoria Bylin
“No, but he stays up all night.”
On occasion, so did Dani. “What else?”
Ellie’s eyes widened. “He said a bad word.”
Dani wouldn’t condemn a man for cussing. Her father had let loose on occasion and colorfully at that. “It’s wrong, but men do it sometimes.”
Emma’s voice shook. “I don’t care about cussing. It’s the guns that scare me.”
“He has four of them. Two rifles and two pistols.”
Guns themselves weren’t evil, but the men who used them sometimes did evil things. Dani forced herself to stay calm.
“What exactly does he do?”
“He sits alone and fires the pistol,” Emma whispered.
“Not exactly,” the girl explained. “The gun’s empty but I can hear it click. He does it over and over, like he’s aiming at someone he can’t see.”
That settled it. The man was crazy. He was either wanted by the law or protecting them from a danger he’d brought to Castle Rock himself.
The front door swung open. Heavy boots thudded on the wooden floor. “Ladies?”
Dani whispered into Emma’s ear. “We’ll talk later.”
As she stood straight, Beau Morgan stepped into the kitchen and crossed his arms as though he meant business. A tan duster hung from his shoulders but gaped at the waist, revealing a wide leather belt and the front edge of a cross-draw holster. He pulled his mouth into a smile that bordered on a sneer. “Pray tell, ladies. My ears are burning. I don’t suppose you were talking about me?”
Emma had lied, but Dani didn’t correct her. She wanted to hide the girls under her skirts. No way could they share their home with a man who armed himself for a trip to town. She’d spotted the church from the window of the train. She’d never met Pastor Blue and his wife, but Patrick had said they were kind. Surely the couple would take them in until Dani could find safer accommodations.
“Let’s go,” she said with false cheer.
Mr. Morgan led the way out the door, grabbing the hat he’d left on a peg in the entry hall. As he pulled it low, the girls followed him down the steps with Dani bringing up the rear. In the front yard she saw the livery buggy and the family wagon. He was standing by the buggy, watching them like a coyote spying a flock of chickens.
He pointed his chin at the wagon. “The girls can ride in the back.”
Dani steered them to the buggy. “I think we can fit. Don’t you, girls?” The rig had a single seat. It would be a squeeze.
Mr. Morgan shrugged. “Suit yourselves.”
When she bent to lift Esther, he reached for the child at the same time. Their hands overlapped on the girl’s waist with Dani losing the race.
His eyes narrowed. “Let me. She’s heavy.”
“I can manage.”
Esther grabbed for Dani, but Mr. Morgan scooped her up and plopped her on the seat before she knew enough to cry. Scowling, he offered his gloved hand to Ellie, then Emma, and finally to her. Looking at the leather, Dani wondered what it hid. Some people thought a man’s eyes revealed his soul. Dani looked at hands. Calluses testified to hard work. Soft skin hinted at laziness or vice. If Mr. Morgan removed the gloves, what would she see? The trim nails of a gambler? The knuckles of a brawler?
His eyes glinted. “I won’t bite, Miss Baxter.”
Satan had said the same thing to Eve. Ignoring his hand, she climbed into the buggy.
He went to the wagon. “Stay in front of me.”
She took the reins and drove out of the yard with Ellie pressed against her ribs and Esther in Emma’s lap. The top of the buggy shielded them from Mr. Morgan’s stare, but the creak of the wagon kept him close.
Ellie squirmed closer to Dani. “He’s nothing like Pa.”
Emma stared straight ahead. “Pa’s gone. We have to get used to it.”
“I don’t want to!” Ellie cried.
“There’s no choice.” Emma tightened her grip on Esther’s waist. “I’m the oldest. That means I have to look out for you.”
Dani’s heart broke for the girl. She knew how it felt to grow up overnight. They rode in silence, listening to the rhythm of Esther sucking her thumb and the creak of the harness. Behind them, Beau Morgan clicked to the horses, crowding the buggy in spite of the empty road. Dani wondered if he’d watch them this closely in town. The closer he rode, the more determined she became to escape. But how? She needed a plan. “Do you know where Mr. Morgan’s going?” she said to Emma.
“Probably to see Mr. Scott.”
“Pa’s attorney. He sent Mr. Morgan a message.”
Ellie frowned. “He said to call him Uncle Beau.”
“I don’t care,” Emma replied. “I want him to leave.”
So did Dani. She considered barging into his meeting with the attorney, but getting the girls to Pastor Blue and his wife took priority. “Where’s Mr. Scott’s office?”
“On Fourth Street.”
The church was on the west side of town. The livery was on First Street. If she could convince Mr. Morgan to allow her to watch the girls while he met with Mr. Scott, they could make a run for the church.
“What are we going to do?” Ellie asked.
The older girls would understand, but Esther wouldn’t. She gave Emma and Ellie a conspiratorial glance. “When Mr. Morgan visits the attorney, we’ll pay a visit to Pastor Blue and his wife.”
Emma’s eyes dimmed. “The church is far.”
“About a half mile,” Ellie added.
Dani’s heart sank. Her new shoes had dainty heels. Pretty or not, they hurt her feet. Esther posed another problem. Unless Dani took the wagon, she’d have to carry the child a good part of the way. The more she thought about sneaking the wagon out from under Beau Morgan’s nose, the more she liked the idea. By then, they’d have picked up her trunk and she’d have possession of Patrick’s letters. Unless he changed his mind about custody, she’d need them in a court of law.
Aware of three pairs of blue eyes on her face, Dani nudged the horse into a faster walk. “We’ll make it,” she said to the girls.
“I don’t see how.” Emma sighed.
Dani put iron in her voice. “Do you know the story about Daniel in the lion’s den?”
“It’s scary,” Esther said.
“That’s true, but God kept Daniel safe.” Dani let the words sink in. “If God can put lions to sleep, He can get us to the church.”
“We can see Miss Adie,” Ellie said.
Esther pulled her thumb out of her mouth. “She has kittens!”
A lump pushed into Dani’s throat. Emma, sensing her sister’s need, chatted about the cats. Ellie joined in, leaving Dani to ponder her plan as she navigated the stretch of road into Castle Rock. With a little luck, she and the girls would be spending the night at the parsonage and Beau Morgan would see the wisdom of leaving them alone.
With the wagon rattling in the buggy’s wake, Dani took in the rippling grass and patches of pine dotting the horizon. In the distance stood the dome of granite that gave the town its name. Round and high, the fortresslike stone capped a mesa jutting up from a meadow. To the east, Dani saw rows of buildings. Most were made of wood, but a few showed off the pinkish rhyolite stone that had given the town its birth. Twenty years ago, Castle Rock had been nothing more than a cattle stop. Now it boasted a school, two churches and dozens of businesses. Patrick had described it in his letters, filling her with excitement at the prospect of being a part of something new.
As they neared the train station, Dani saw the tracks stretching as far south as she could see. The train that brought her had left hours ago. Nothing remained. Not a trace of steam, not the six people who had disembarked with her. The only sign of humanity was her trunk sitting on the platform. It looked the way she felt…alone, abandoned and packed for a trip it would never take.
Dani reined in the livery mare. Beau Morgan halted the wagon next to her, climbed down and opened the tailgate. As he strode to the platform, she leaped down from the buggy and followed him.
“That’s my trunk,” she said.
“It’s heavy. You’ll need help.”
Ignoring her, he hoisted it as if it held feathers instead of her life and lugged it down the three steps. Dani hurried to the back of the wagon where she saw a pile of quilts. Had Patrick kept them there for the girls? Or had Beau Morgan thought to bring them for the bumpy ride? Dani didn’t know, but she doubted Patrick kept blankets in his work wagon. She knew from his letters that he owned a two-seat surrey the family took to church, yet kindness didn’t fit her impression of Beau Morgan.
The voice belonged to her father. Walter Baxter had been quick to love and slow to judge. She could imagine his words.
For all you know, Beau Morgan’s an upstanding citizen. Judge not, daughter.
Dani tried to keep an open mind, but she couldn’t erase the picture of this man dry firing a pistol into the dark. As he latched the tailgate, she went back to the buggy. He took the reins of the wagon and led the way to the livery stable. The wagon rattled as they passed a feed store, then a mining office where men stood in a line. People on the street noticed them. Some smiled and a few waved to the girls, but Dani had no way to signal for help.
When they reached the livery, Mr. Morgan stopped the wagon. Without a word, he went into the barn and disappeared into the shadows.
“Let’s go!” Dani cried.
She leaped out of the buggy and turned. Emma shoved Esther into her arms, then jumped out the other side with Ellie behind her. As the older girls piled into the wagon, Dani boosted Esther over the tailgate, then hurried to the front seat. Before she could hoist herself up, Beau Morgan strode through the doorway.
Faking a smile, Dani put a ring in her voice. “We’re ready to go.”
“I see.” He handed her a silver dollar. “Here.”
“Miller’s refunding the rental.”
It wasn’t much, but every dollar would help. As she took the money, her fingers brushed his glove. He stepped back as if she had the pox, then glanced across the street to a row of shops that included an emporium. Looking befuddled, he cleared his throat. “You’ve had a long trip. Is there anything you need while we’re in town?”
Yesterday Dani had imagined browsing the shops with Patrick’s daughters. That dream had died. “No, thank you.”
“I’m fine, Mr. Morgan.” She wanted to run, not shop.
“Suit yourself,” he said with a grunt.
Intending to ride with the girls, she headed for the back of the wagon. As she turned, strong fingers caught the bottom of her forearm and turned her back to the seat. His touch was light, nothing more than a brush, but it felt like a shackle. His voice went low, barely a whisper. “You’ll ride up front with me.”
“I’d rather sit with the girls.”
“I’m not asking what you want,” he replied. “I’m telling you what’s best.”
“I don’t see why—”
“That’s right. You don’t.”
Dani pulled out of his grip but didn’t move. His eyes tensed with the same worry she’d seen on her father’s face just before the worst storm of her life had swept across their farm. As he’d ordered her to the cellar, a tornado had funneled down behind the barn. She’d learned that day to trust her father’s instincts.
Beau Morgan’s expression shifted to the mix of a smile and a scowl she’d seen in the kitchen. Her father had known best. Did Beau Morgan?
“Is there a reason?” she asked.
“None I care to give.”
Dani opened her mouth to argue, then sealed her lips. It didn’t matter where she sat in the wagon as long as he took them to a place where they could make a run for the church. When he offered his hand, she accepted his help onto the seat. He walked to the other side, climbed up and steered the wagon into the street. Anyone on the boardwalk would think they were a family.
And that, Dani realized, explained why he’d insisted she sit at his side. She and the girls were part of a disguise. They turned Beau Morgan into a family man. Who was after him and why? Dani’s stomach clenched. With each block, they traveled farther from the church. Staring straight ahead, she risked a question. “Where are we going?”
“To see Patrick’s attorney.”
Dani thought of Emma’s guess. The child had a good mind. “It must concern the girls.”
The man glanced over his shoulder. Dani did the same and saw them huddled as far from the seat as they could get.
Looking straight ahead, he lowered his voice. “I haven’t told them yet, but you might as well know. I’m selling the farm and sending them to school.”
“You can’t!” The whisper scraped her throat.
“It’s for the best.”
Dani knotted her hands in her lap. Was it wiser to make a break for the parsonage or insist on seeing Trevor Scott herself? Patrick had never mentioned Mr. Scott. On the other hand, he’d spoken well of Pastor Blue. She was weighing the choice when they stopped in front of an ice-cream parlor. Mr. Morgan hooked his thumb toward the office building across the street. “Scott’s office is on the second floor. I thought you and the girls might enjoy some ice cream while I take care of business.”