“For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7
“There has to be more,” whispered Frankie McNeal as she studied the stars. Tonight they glittered like ice chips flung against a velvet night. She wondered at the seemingly haphazard placement as she flipped the collar of her wool coat against the frigid air. The gesture did little to ward off the biting temperature. Nothing hindered the prying fingers of wind as it invaded the folds of her clothing. A huge gust carried the campfire smoke and glowing embers heavenward.
She clamped her teeth together to keep them from chattering, but not even the cold diminished the heat of anger burning in her cheeks. It wasn’t that she minded taking the night watch. It suited her mood. The time alone gave her a chance to clear her head. She tried not to dwell on her older twin brothers curled snug in their warm blankets, but it would be easier if she could drown out the sounds of their obnoxious snoring.
Frankie blew on her numb fingers and scowled. Who was she kidding? She resented the menial duty, as much as she resented being singled out as the only girl in the all-male outfit. It was never more apparent than on the eve of a big job. Why should it fall on her to take up the slack? The boys weren’t expected to lose their precious sleep—unthinkable. She, on the other hand, was expendable—at least, Big Stan McNeal thought so.
Big Stan’s insufferable breathing resounded in the chilled night air. She crushed the urge to strangle him with his own blanket. It seldom occurred to Frankie to think of him as her pa. He’d been Big Stan as far back as she could remember, and he certainly had no paternal tendencies toward her. Their relationship was complicated. It wasn’t that she minded his lack of affection—she’d never experienced the normal bond between a father and daughter. She couldn’t miss what she didn’t have. But oh, how she resented his attitude toward her—as if being born a girl made her inferior.
Frankie loved her brothers, even if they were rough around the edges. They could be good-natured and quite likable most times. Big Stan took pride in his three strapping males and made no bones about his distaste for being saddled with a daughter. She was like a pebble in his boot.
The irony made her lips twitch in the darkness. Despite his prowess when it came to producing male heirs, her brothers lacked their father’s shrewdness—a point he dogmatically drove home. Frankie was by far the most capable of his children, inheriting his determination and grit—although she knew he would never admit it. The twins were twenty-six—six years her senior, but he humiliated them at every opportunity. Then there was Seth. Poor Seth . . . her heart ached for the boy.
The hairs on Frankie’s neck bristled at approaching footsteps. She whipped around with her gun drawn, her eyes searched the shadows until the familiar hangdog slouch of her youngest brother materialized from the darkness. She released a steady stream of air and straightened her shoulders.
Frankie holstered the weapon and blew an unruly strand of auburn hair from her face. The stubborn curl had once again slipped from the woven braid. She tucked it behind her ear, repositioned her hat, and arched a brow at him.
“You should be asleep.” The words came out harsher than she intended. Adrenaline rushed through her body. The prospect of an approaching stranger frightened her more than she cared to admit. She had never shot anyone, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t if it meant defending herself. She squatted and leaned her back against a tree, trying to appear unruffled.
“I-I brung you th-this.” The moisture from his breath billowed out and formed a silver haze in the night air. He held out a tin cup of what she hoped was warm coffee. There was also a horse blanket draped over one arm.
Seth celebrated his seventeenth birthday three months earlier, but his maturity level was that of an eleven-year-old. Her heart softened as it always did when he struggled with words. The boy’s shoulders sagged, no doubt from the weight of an overbearing father.
She accepted the cup. “Thank you, Seth. Want to sit with me awhile?” He was too delicate for this life.
The lanky boy sprawled beside her, offering her the blanket. He remained silent as she settled into a sitting position and wrapped the throw around them both. The fire crackled and sent new sparks flying as a log burned in two. There was a comfortable silence between them. Several shooting stars raced across the sky before Seth broke the stillness.
“Fr-frankie, you th-think there’s a heaven?”
On a beautiful night like this, it was easy to believe anything. “Maybe.”
“I-if there is a h-heaven, you r-reckon Ma is th-there?”
Frankie considered his question and weighed her answer. Their ma had been a prostitute, and as far as she knew, women of her reputation didn’t make it inside the doors of a church, much less the gates of heaven.
“I’m not sure, Seth. I’m certainly no expert.” Frankie wasn’t one to sugarcoat a matter, but neither did she have the heart to dampen the hope she heard in his voice.
The truth was Frankie wasn’t sure the redheaded beauty had loved anyone but their brawny father. She had never understood Seth’s devotion to a woman that had so little to do with him. He had been a sickly baby and often their ma had not wanted to be bothered. She had been more concerned with her appearance and keeping tabs on her wily lover. Big Stan’s devilish good looks and charming smile had a way of disarming the toughest cynic—male and female. Lanie Bowers had been no exception. He had managed to elicit four children from her, all the while escaping the matrimonial noose.
“F-frankie,” he repeated, drawing her from her thoughts. “I-I know what you’re thinkin’. Ma was a pr-prostitute, but Pastor Matthews told me that Jesus loves the pr-prostitutes too.”
“Pastor Matthews? Who is Pastor Matthews?” Frankie turned and faced her brother.
“D-don’t be mad. Y-yesterday when you and Big Stan went into the bank, I saw him at the church. I-I have to know Ma is okay, Fr-frankie. D-don’t you think she is watchin’ us from heaven, and protecting us?”
“You did what? What were you thinking?” She didn’t like to raise her voice. He got enough of that from Big Stan. But better for her to set him straight than if anyone else got wind of it. “You could have ruined everything.”
“I-I was r-real careful.”
“That’s not the point—you put us in danger. It’s a small town. People are likely to remember strangers. The less they see of us, the better.”
Frankie wasn’t proud of her part in Big Stan’s scheme. She detested playing the role of an empty-headed heiress. But she had learned from her mother how to turn on the charm. She possessed an innate instinct when to be coy, when to bat her eyelashes, and how to finagle her way inside the bank vaults to get the layout. With finesse, she manipulated the managers to do her bidding. Big Stan liked to brag it was a wonder they simply didn’t hand her the key. It might be the only positive comment he had to say about her. Frankie dreamed of the day she would take the money she’d saved, and she and Seth would buy a small piece of property and put down roots. Someday—
Seth tugged on her sleeve. “A-are you listening?”
“Yes, Seth, I’m listening.”
“P-pastor Matthews told me Jesus kept the prostitute from being s-stoned. That means he cares for them too, r-right?”
Frankie saw the pleading in his soft, rheumy eyes, and her heart softened. Seth’s face was delicate, almost pretty for a boy. “Well, if that is what the pastor told you, then it must be true. I doubt a man of God would lie.”
“Fr-frankie, I don’t have a good feeling about tomorrow. I don’t th-think what we’re doing is r-right.”
“What’s with all this religious talk, Seth? Are you turning preacher on me?” She punched him in the arm and gave him a wink.
“H-heaven sounds like a nice place. I-I don’t want God or Ma lookin’ down on us angry.”
“It never bothered her before she died, I can’t see it should bother her now. Besides, I reckon God knows things are what they are. We won’t be doing this forever. You stop fretting.”
He smiled at her and leaned his blond head against her shoulder. A contented sigh escaped his lips.
Seth was a good boy. He deserved much more than this life. One day soon, she aimed to see he got it.
DANIEL MYERS searched the horizon for signs of trouble as the first orange streaks fringed the morning sky. He patted the shotgun that lay on the seat beside him as the March sun made its weak appearance. The wagon, pulled by two workhorses, crawled at a snail’s pace. He removed a pocket watch and checked the time. His thumb traveled over the engraving, lingering over the precious script a moment as was his habit, before snapping it closed. For two hours he’d been jostled along the wheel-rutted road. This trip would be the last into town before the spring rains. Soon the ice would melt, and the way would be no more than a muddy stretch of land, breaking the axels off any wagon foolish enough to attempt it. A chill clung to the air. He tucked a quilt around Misty’s lap. It would be noon before they arrived in West Briar.
Misty sat chatting away like a squirrel with a nut. Her eyes sparkled like her Mama’s; her cheeks were rosy like winter apples. She had his stubborn chin and straight, dark hair. Nothing escaped the nine-year-old’s attention.
Several people greeted them as they entered the small town. Daniel tipped his hat, somewhat embarrassed by the fuss his arrival seemed to stir in the women. They gathered in groups, whispering—no doubt pitying a lone man trying to raise his daughter. The Lord knew he had his share of dinner invites from well-meaning ladies. He graciously refused them all, not wanting their sympathy. It never occurred to him half of West Briar was smitten with his boyish good looks. His piercing blue eyes and black hair made a striking combination—rare in these parts.
He climbed off the wagon and encircled Misty’s waist with his wide, calloused hands to help her down. She shook her head.
“I’ll sit here and wait.”
“You’ve been sitting all day—don’t you want to stretch your legs a bit?”
“No, thank you,” she chirped. “Daddy, look at that boy over there. I’ve never seen him.”
Daniel glanced in the direction she pointed. Just a skinny kid, nothing special. He looked all hat and boots, holding four horses. “This town’s growing up. I’m sure we don’t recognize everyone that lives here now. You positive you won’t come in with me?”
She smiled at him and nodded.
After Daniel finished paying for his packages, he walked out of the West Briar Mercantile. His boots clomped against the sun-bleached planks that made up the sidewalk. He was halfway to the wagon when he realized he had forgotten Misty’s peppermints. The child had an exceptional love for the sweets, and he enjoyed indulging her whenever it was within his means. He swiveled around to return to the store but stopped short at the sight of Mandy Perkins.
“Well, hello Daniel. It’s been a while since you were in town.”
Daniel’s glance fell to the pretty blond. Her saucy curls bounced around her cheeks as she tilted her head upward. She gazed at him with soft, jade eyes. “Mandy.” He touched the brim of his hat.
He didn’t want to be rude, but his plans didn’t include standing around talking. Misty was waiting and they had a long trip back. He tried to sidestep her, but she threaded her arm through his and followed him back into the store.
The noon sun bore down on Frankie. The horses pawed at the ground with nervous agitation. What was taking so long? Sweat trickled between her shoulders despite the cool day. Her stomach rolled. She chewed the inside of her cheek, waiting for the doors of the bank to burst open. They should be done by now. Time crawled.
Her eyes flickered between the clock tower and the bank doors. She held her breath, willing them to come out. Deep in concentration, she didn't notice the approach of a young girl about half her size until she was right on her. The youngster thrust out a hand in greeting.
“Hi, I’m Misty. What do they call you?”
Clad in worn breeches, and a wool jacket, she might have been a boy if not for her long, dark hair. Frankie’s mouth worked nervously, but no sound came out. Any minute her brothers would rush out the bank and this child would be in danger. She had to send her away. “Look, kid, scram!”
“How old are you anyway?” The girl named Misty continued, unaffected by the rebuff. “I never saw you around here. Is that red hair you got peeking out under your hat? I never saw a boy with red hair. ‘Except maybe Albert Pinkerton. He has red hair and freckles, and he’s—”
“Did you hear me—I said, git.” The words came out through clenched teeth. “You see these horses, here? They don’t like nosy little girls. “Skedaddle!”
Misty cocked a dark brow. “I’m not afraid of horses. It looks to me like you’ve got a handle on them . . . although you are a might skinny. Why do you have so many horses anyway?”
Frankie was incredulous. Shouldn’t this girl have gone running back to her ma by now? Was there something wrong with her? Her hands itched to grab the child and shake her, scream at her, anything to send her on her way. Under different circumstances, she may have found the little imp charming, but right now, they were both at risk.
Just as Frankie was about to do something desperate, help came from the most unlikely source—a dark-haired man with a blond in tow.
“There you are, Misty. I thought you were going to wait in the wagon.”
“Oh, I was, but I wanted to talk to this boy and see his horses.”
The man looked from his daughter and extended a hand. “My apologies, son. The name’s Daniel Myers, and this chatterbox is my daughter, Misty. She can sure talk the bark off the trees.”
The stranger turned his eyes on Frankie. Her already pounding heart lurched as if it might jump clear out her chest. Mercy! She had never seen eyes that blue. She swallowed hard, trying to find her voice. “No problem, mister.”
“He don’t talk much,” Misty commented to her father.
“Doesn’t talk much,” he corrected. “You probably haven’t given him a chance.” He placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder and steered her toward the wagon. “Let’s let this young man get back to his work.”
For a second, the stranger hesitated—stared at her, pinning her with those brilliant blue eyes. He tilted his head, his expression hard to read. Did he suspect? Then he smiled, nodded, and shepherded the group back to their waiting wagon.
Frankie felt like a bolt of lightning had shot through her. Her cheeks burned. For goodness sake, he had only smiled at her. What on earth had caused her to react so? She marveled at the deflated sensation in the pit of her stomach. Family. Was that what was missing from her life? She watched the man speaking with the woman and wondered what it would be like to have a husband and child. She wouldn’t treat them like—but she didn’t have time to finish the thought.
The sound of gunfire jerked her from her reverie—the strange incident forgotten. Smoke and bullets whizzed by as the door to the bank flew open, the twins filled the frame. They fired off several shots as they ran toward her.
“Go, Frankie!” Edgar yelled.
Frankie stood, planted on the spot. The horses pulled on the reigns. Where was Big Stan? Where was Seth? Like magic, Big Stan barreled through the door. A limp form tossed over his shoulder.
“Dang it, Frankie, you hear me?” Edgar yelled, as he grabbed the bridle from her and swung himself into the saddle. “Mount up, let’s ride, gal.”
Big Stan ran at her with a shower of bullets whizzing by him. “Go, go, go.” He stumbled and caught himself. A shot nicked him in the shoulder, then another, but he kept running.
The sight of blood spurred her into action. She ricocheted her body into the saddle, watching horrified as Big Stan slung Seth’s body up to Ernest, before mounting his own. Seth’s lifeless head rolled and fell back against his brother’s barrel-like chest.
“Is he . . .” she couldn’t say the words.
“Just grazed.” Big Stan grunted. “He passed out.” He dug his heels into the side of the horse. “Yah!”
She had to believe he was all right. How was she going to mount on legs that felt as shaky as seedlings in a windstorm? Reflexes took over as bullets came sizzling by her. She nudged her mount to run, casting desperate looks over her shoulder.