Or so they apparently believed. “How sad.” The words were but a whisper as the young woman watched the parade of females conduct their pursuit of the cowhands who worked on outlying ranches and farms and assorted married men from the town of Eden, in the Dakota Territory. That she could ever live in such a manner was something she would never have considered during the days of summer, when the warm weather protected her slender body from the cold winds. When she did not bear the shame of a mother who had once worked in this place. Or so she’d been told by the couple who’d raised her, reviling her with a tale of a woman gone bad, bearing an illegitimate child.
She’d found that the parents she’d thought were her own, were but unkind strangers who had taken her into their home as an act of charity. And if what they had done in the name of charity were known among the townspeople, they might not be able to hold up their heads in Eden.
But a young girl would not be believed when her word was placed next to an upstanding pair who posed as ideal parents of a girl who had turned out badly. And Katie was that girl, if her foster parents were to be believed.
In that same home dwelt a second child, a younger female, the abandoned daughter of a relative of Agnes Schrader, who had been given the privilege of schooling at the town’s one-room schoolhouse. But Katie was not so fortunate, for with a background so filled with disgrace and shame, she wasn’t considered worth the trouble to educate.
She had been whipped and treated as a slave for twelve years, was now approaching her eighteenth birthday, yet had done the work of a woman while still a child. Taking her courage in both hands, she’d left the farm where she’d lived in servitude and set out to find shelter. Shelter for a weary body and sanctuary for a mind confused by the perils life had dealt her. Most of them derived from the man who had become a threat to her on another level over the past weeks, for Jacob Schrader had attempted to crawl beneath her quilt on three occasions. She feared him more than she had thought possible.
Tonight, his words of sly entreaty had brought chills to her flesh, his looks of dark anger and the flashes of masculine power he’d brought to bear upon her were enough to find her running for her very life. The thought of his hands on her body was enough to force her to flee.
She’d walked for three miles, shivering in the ragged clothing she wore, wrapped in a shawl she’d taken without permission from a hook by the back door of the farmhouse, desperate for a safe place in which to hide. Any rude shelter would do, so long as it provided surcease from the north winds that promised snow, sweeping across the plains of Canada down to the fields of the Dakota Territory.
Summer had been bad enough, with long days spent in the fields, evenings in the farmhouse, where her work was never done. Now, in February, things were changed, the sun an infrequent visitor to the sky, replaced by snow clouds that threatened to spill their weight upon the surrounding countryside. The oncoming weather would be her worst enemy, unless she included that house she had just left.
She peered again into the saloon, its smoke-filled interior teeming with men seeking enjoyment, many of them half-drunk, the other half well on their way to that state. The smoke from their cigars and hand-rolled cigarettes rose to the ceiling and formed a haze guaranteed to make her cough and choke, should she linger long in its presence.
But, it seemed she might have no choice, for the saloon might indeed be the only haven available to a young woman without a job, or a place to live. Surely she could bring herself to serve drinks to men, smile at them and return their remarks. Even dance with one or two if the necessity arose, if she could but learn to sway to the music as did the other females in this place, curving their bodies closely to the men who held them.
For even now, two of the women inside the place were swaying to the raucous sounds of the piano, their chosen partners holding them close, moving between the tables in a parody of a dance. It didn’t hold a candle to the square dancing she’d seen on one never-to-be-forgotten evening, when she’d slipped away and observed couples dancing at the Grange Hall in Mason’s Creek, just two miles from the Schrader farm.
But then, those dances were attended by a different breed of men and women, and the dancing was a far cry from the suggestive gyrations that were taking place in the Dogleg Saloon this night.
The swinging door was pushed open and a drunken cowhand staggered out, his hat cockeyed upon his head, his shirttail free of his trousers, and bearing a disreputable appearance. His bleary eyes scanned the wooden sidewalk and he staggered to where an upright post provided a spot for him to halt, leaning his weight against it as he looked over the assortment of horses that lined the hitching rail.
Katie moved back a bit, into the shadows, lest he see her. But the motion of her feet apparently caught his eye for he lifted his head and turned his gaze in her direction.
“Well, looky here,” he muttered, attempting to move from his leaning post, his body not cooperating with his aim, as he began to move toward her. “You lookin’ for a man, sweetie?” His laugh was harsh, a raw sound that pierced her ears, and she turned from his reaching hands.
There was nowhere to go, for she was caught against the outer wall. As his dirty hand touched her arm, she stiffened, then spun in place and almost fell against the swinging door.
It gave way obligingly with her weight and she was inside the saloon. The door swung behind her, its weight nudging her farther into the room, and she cast a quick look around, seeking she knew not what. Perhaps a friendly face.
Of those there were a handful, most of them whiskered, several of them belonging to men who sat alone at tables meant for three or four. One rose, taking a step closer to her, his hands outstretched to touch her and she twitched to one side, lest his grimy hands leave their stain on her person.
“What’s the matter, honey? Ain’t I purty enough for you?” His drunken drawl brought a shudder of dread to her slender form, and she sidestepped away from him, only to brush against another man.
A long arm circled her waist and she was drawn close to another table. The man who held her sat on a chair, his hat tilted back, his head tipped upward as he took a survey of her form. His gaze rested for a long moment on the dark bruises apparent on her arms and face.
“You don’t belong in here,” he said, his words low and to the point. “Does your mother know you’re out on the town?” His lips twisted, lifting one corner of his mouth, as if he were unused to smiling and this was his best attempt.
“My mother?” Katie shook her head, fear touching her with chilly tendrils that brought gooseflesh to her arms. The man was another sort entirely than the two she’d already encountered in the past few minutes; his features were more finely sculpted, his hand at her waist was clean, and he wore dark clothing, with a holster against his leg.
Yet Katie exerted her strength against him, fearful of his hand trespassing beyond the place it had chosen to rest. But he would not relax his hold and she looked down at him, her tongue dampening sudden dry lips as she whispered pleading words. “Don’t touch me. Let me go…please.”
As if her polite words amused him, his mouth lifted into a genuine smile, whether his amusement was for her benefit, or he was merely entertained by her helplessness she could not discern, for she could not release herself from his hand. And he knew it. Knew that his grip was solid and firm, that she was helpless to move away from him.
“Sit down. Here.” He reached with his other hand, an awkward movement, and pulled another chair close to the one he occupied, and then pushed her onto its surface.
She blinked, aware that the attention of several other men had moved in her direction, and her head lowered quickly, not wanting to see their expressions as they evaluated the stranger in their midst. A mist appeared before her eyes and she fought back the tears that threatened to fall.
“Don’t be afraid,” her companion said quickly. “Lift your head and look at me. Nowhere else, just into my face.”
Surprised by the direct order, schooled to obey, she did as he told her, swallowing the bile that threatened to spill from her throat. His eyes were dark, his features harsh, but not unkind, and she felt a flare of relief as his hand left her body to grasp the cold fingers that lay in her lap.
She was obviously terrified, and John felt a jolt of sympathy as he watched the girl before him. And then he spoke, his voice stern, his words direct. “Sit up straight and act as if you’ve recognized me. The rest of them will leave you alone if they think I’m an acquaintance of yours.” He leaned back a bit in his chair, drawing her hand to his knee in a gesture he knew would send a message to the men watching. A message of familiarity, a gesture she was obviously accustomed to. She looked uncertain, as if she’d only just realized that she was the target of men’s looks, those lustful glances that were now being cast in her direction.
“I didn’t mean to come in here,” she said quietly, in an attempt to explain her abrupt entrance to the saloon.
“I didn’t think so. It’s no place for a young girl,” he agreed, reaching to scoot her chair closer to his own, loosening his grip on her hand to do so.
She retrieved her fingers and hugged them to her waist, meshing them with those of her other hand. “I’m not that young. I’m almost eighteen,” she said, speaking the word with dignity.
“Almost eighteen.” He smiled, his teeth white and even, and his face softening with the movement. “You’re a child. You don’t belong in a place like this. Where are your parents?”
She lifted her chin. “I don’t know. I take care of myself. I don’t need anyone else.”
“Well, you’ve apparently taken a wrong turn tonight, honey,” he said in a low whisper, leaning toward her a bit. “You’re shivering and you look like you haven’t had a good meal in a week. This is no place for you.”
Her glance was angry. “It’s warmer in here than out in front.”
He smiled again, in admiration for her spirit. “Well, there is that. But you’ll find there’s a price to pay for whatever warmth you find here.”
“A price?” Katie wondered at his words. Surely they wouldn’t charge her to sit in a chair and get warm, would they? And yet, from the corner of her eye, she saw the bartender giving her long looks of inquiry, as if wondering what her purpose was.
The man beside her spoke again in an undertone. “Do you need a bed for the night? They’ve got a whole hallway upstairs, lined with bedrooms. I’m sure there’d be any number of men willing to rent one for you, so long as you let them occupy it with you.” The words rolled off his tongue and settled around her ears, burning them with the threat he suggested might be her lot.
“I couldn’t sell myself, mister,” she said quickly, for she had heard of such a thing. “I just need to get warm.” And wasn’t that the truth, for her body felt like a chunk of ice in the midst of the creek in midwinter. A long shiver ran the length of her spine, and she felt the first thawing of her fingers as they knit together at her waist.
He lifted his other hand, the one not occupied with the back of her chair and one of the scantily dressed ladies approached, smiling at him, glancing with pity at Katie.
“Sadie, bring us a glass of whiskey, with lots of water.”
The woman laughed, sauntering to the bar. Then, within minutes, she reappeared with a glass containing a golden liquid and scooped up the coin the man offered in payment.
He picked it up and held it to his mouth, tasting the contents and frowning, then offered it to Katie. “Take a drink. It’ll warm you up, honey.”
She shook her head, unwilling to put the foul-smelling stuff in her mouth, and his jaw hardened and he leaned closer, offering the glass, holding it to her lips.
“Take a swallow. Don’t argue with me or give me that high-toned look, honey. When it comes to booze, I know what a swallow of it will do for a gal like you. Your stomach could use a belt, and in a few minutes your system will lap it up and you’ll generate a little heat.”
“Please—” Katie turned to look him full in the face “—I don’t want to throw up, and if I taste that, I think I will. My stomach is hurting already, and putting whiskey into it isn’t going to help any.”
His gaze narrowed on her trembling lips and he bent closer, his voice a low whisper. “Are you hungry, girl?”
She swallowed her pride and nodded, just once, but it seemed to be enough to answer his query to his satisfaction, for he shot her a look of understanding, picked up the glass and downed the contents with two swallows.
“Come on.” He lifted her bodily from the chair and walked with her, his long arm circling her waist, to the back of the saloon, flicking a quick look at the bartender as they passed that stalwart gentleman. He opened a door that stood beneath the stairway, almost hidden in the gloom.