“For man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
1 Samuel 16:7
There has to be more.
Frankie McNeal studied the stars, glittering above her like ice chips flung against velvet. She took small comfort in their haphazard placement. She was on her own.
She flipped up the collar of her wool coat to block the frigid air, but still the wind’s prying fingers invaded every fold of her clothing. A huge gust carried the campfire smoke and glowing embers heavenward.
Being assigned the night watch wasn’t so bad, she told herself. At least it gave her time to clear her head. Still, she clenched her jaw, trying to ignore her brothers snuggled in their warm blankets. It would be easier if she could drown out the sound of their snoring.
Frankie blew on 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 the boys to take up the slack? They weren’t expected to lose their precious sleep. “Unthinkable,” she muttered. But then, she was expendable—at least Big Stan thought so. She’d like nothing better than to smother him with his own blanket—at least it would quiet his insufferable breathing.
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. She didn’t mind his lack of affection. 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 were good-natured and likable most times. Big Stan relished the idea of siring three strapping males and made no bones about his distaste for being saddled with a daughter. She was a pebble in his boot.
The irony made her smile. Despite his prowess when it came to producing male heirs, her brothers lacked their father’s shrewdness—a point he dogmatically drove home. By far, Frankie was the most capable of his children, inheriting his determination and grit—although he would never admit it. The twins, Earnest and Edgar, were twenty-six—six years her senior. Grown men, but he humiliated them at every opportunity. Then there was Seth.
Poor Seth. Her heart ached for him.
The hairs on Frankie’s neck bristled at approaching footsteps. She whipped around. With her gun drawn, she searched the shadows. There! The familiar hangdog slouch of her youngest brother materialized from the darkness.
Frankie released a stream of air. “Why aren’t you asleep?” The words spilled out harsher than she intended. Adrenaline still rushed through her. She’d never shot anyone, but it didn’t mean she couldn’t if the need arose. Frankie holstered the weapon.
“S-sorry I scared you.”
“You didn’t scare me.” Frankie glared at him, then shoved a piece of auburn hair into her braid. She repositioned her hat and leaned against a tree.
Seth moved closer, unsure of himself. He’d celebrated his seventeenth birthday three months earlier, but his maturity level was more in line with an eleven-year-old. The boy’s shoulders sagged as if he carried a weight too heavy to bear. “I-I brung you th-this.” The moisture from his breath billowed out and formed a silver haze above his head. He extended a horse blanket and a tin cup.
Her heart softened as it always did when he struggled to speak. She accepted the offering, hoping it was coffee and hoping it was hot. “Thanks. Want to sit with me?” He was too delicate for this life, but she didn’t know what she’d do without him.
The lanky boy sprawled beside her. He remained silent as she settled into a sitting position and wrapped the covering 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 think there’s a heaven?”
On a beautiful night like this, it was easy to believe anything. “Maybe.”
“If there is, you reckon Ma is there?”
Frankie considered his question and weighed her answer. Their ma had been a prostitute. 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 in his voice.
The truth was Frankie wasn’t sure the redhead had loved anyone but their obnoxious father. She had never understood Seth’s devotion to a woman who 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 track of her wily lover. Big Stan’s devilish good looks and charming smile had a way of disarming the harshest cynic—male or female. Lanie Bowers had been no exception. He had managed to elicit four children from her, all while escaping the matrimonial noose.
“F-frankie,” he repeated, drawing her from her thoughts. “I know what you’re thinkin’. Ma was a sportin’ woman, but Pastor Matthews told me Jesus loves the pr-prostitutes too.”
“D-don’t be mad. Y-yesterday when you and Big Stan visited the bank, I saw him at the church. I-I have to know Ma is all right, Frankie. D-do you think she is watchin’ us from heaven and protecting us?”
“What on earth were you thinking?” She rarely raised her voice at him. He got enough of that from Big Stan. But better her set him straight than if anyone else got wind of it. “You could have ruined everything.”
“I was r-real careful.”
“That’s not the point—you put us in danger. It’s a small town. People 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. It’s a wonder they don’t just hand you the key, Big Stan often said. It was the closest to a compliment she’d ever get from him.
Frankie dreamed of the day she and Seth would buy a piece of property with the money they’d saved. They’d 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 the pastor told you, it must be true. I doubt a man of God would lie.”
“Fr-frankie, I don’t have a good feeling about tomorrow. What we’re doing ain’t r-right.”
“What’s with all this religious talk, Seth? Are you turning preacher on me?” She elbowed him.
“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 resting 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, running his thumb over the familiar hairline crack that flawed the face. He paused, but not to read the inscription. His eyes grew moist before he snapped it shut. He returned the timepiece to his vest as methodically as he stored most of his memories.
For two hours he’d been jostled along the wheel-rutted road. This trip would be the last into town before the spring rains. The ice would soon 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 chatted away beside him 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. She was all he had in the world, and he’d do anything to keep her safe.
When they arrived hours later, several of the town folk greeted him. It was a friendly place, and he knew just about everyone who lived here. Daniel tipped his hat, embarrassed by the fuss his arrival stirred in the women. They gathered in groups, whispering—no doubt pitying a lone man raising his daughter. Lord knew he had his share of dinner invites from well-meaning ladies. He graciously refused them all, not wanting their sympathy.
He climbed off the wagon and encircled Misty’s waist to help her down.
She shook her head. “I’ll wait here.”
“You’ve been sitting all day—don’t you want to stretch your legs?”
“No, thank you.” She seemed distracted, looking at something over his shoulder. “Daddy, look at that boy over there. I’ve never seen him.”
Daniel glanced in the direction she pointed. He frowned. 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 who lives here now. I’d feel a lot better if you come with me.”
“I’d rather stay here and watch the people.”
He glanced once more at the youth. “Suit yourself.”
After Daniel paid 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 remembered 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 when Amanda Perkins stepped into view.
“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. “Amanda.” 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.
“What’s your hurry? Mind if I tag along?”
He must have hesitated a second too long.
“I don’t bite.” She laughed. “Not like some folks around here. I swear, half of West Briar is smitten with those boyish good looks of yours.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Don’t you? Why those blue eyes and black hair are a rare combination in these parts. Good thing for you, I like my men wealthy and matured.”
Her sly smile said differently.
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 roiled. She chewed the inside of her cheek, waiting for the doors of the bank to burst open. They should be out by now.
Her gaze flickered between the clock tower and the bank doors. She held her breath, willing them to appear. Deep in concentration, she didn’t notice a young girl’s approach until she was right on her. The youngster thrust her hand forward 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. It wasn’t safe. “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 slid out between clenched teeth. “You see these horses? They don’t like nosy little girls. Skedaddle!”
Misty cocked a dark brow. “I ain’t afraid. 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, shake her, scream at her—anything to send her on her way. She put them both at risk.
Just as Frankie was about to do something desperate, help came from an unlikely source—a dark-haired man charged them. A blond followed, doing her best to keep up.
“There you are!” Worry creased his features. “You promised to wait in the wagon.”
“I wanted to talk to this boy and see his horses.”
The man looked from his daughter to Frankie. His eyes narrowed, sizing her up. Finally, he extended a hand. “My apologies, son. The name’s Daniel Myers, and this chatterbox is my daughter, Misty.”
The stranger turned his gaze to Frankie. Her already pounding heart lurched as if it might jump clear out her chest. Mercy! She’d never seen eyes so blue. She swallowed hard, trying to find her voice. “No problem, mister.”
“He don’t talk much,” Misty commented to her pa.
“Doesn’t talk much,” he corrected. “You probably haven’t given him a chance.” He placed a protective hand on the girl’s shoulder. “We need to be getting home. Let’s let this young man get back to his work.” He steered her toward the wagon.
The stranger turned to look at Frankie. His brilliant blue eyes narrowing for the briefest second, his expression hard to read.
Did he suspect?
Then he smiled, tipped his hat, and shepherded his 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?
The man and woman chatted at the wagon. Frankie 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 hung 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.
Her legs shook like seedlings in a windstorm, but reflexes took over as bullets came sizzling by her. The sight of blood spurred her into action. She ricocheted herself 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. “The fool fainted.” He dug his heels into the side of the horse. “Yah!”
She had to believe he was all right. She nudged her mount to run, casting desperate looks over her shoulder.