Undercover agent Gideon Yarbro is renowned for stopping outlaws almost before they commit a crime. But now he must stop a wedding—despite the bride’s resistance. Lydia Fairmont will lose everything if she doesn’t honor her betrothal to a heartless banker. Unless she marries someone else instead…whether it’s a love match or not.
Determined to honor his own decade-old promise to help Lydia, Gideon carries her off to Stone Creek and makes her his reluctant wife. Forget a honeymoon for “show”—not with a vengeful ex-fiancé on their trail and a hired gun on the loose. But there just might be hope for the marriage…and two hearts meant for each other.
Phoenix, Arizona, summer 1915
Except for the old codger huddled on the stool at the far end of the bar and the barkeep, who looked vaguely familiar, Gideon Yarbro had the Golden Horseshoe Saloon to himself and he liked it that way. Just wanted to drink his beer in peace, wash some of the inevitable sooty grit from the long train ride from Chicago to Phoenix out of his gullet, and gear himself up to travel on to Stone Creek come morning.
His brothers, Rowdy and Wyatt, would be after him to stay on once he got home, settle down, pin on a badge like Rowdy had, or start a ranch, like Wyatt. Get himself married, too, probably, and sire a pack of kids. Both considerably older than Gideon, who was the baby of the family, the former outlaws had left the urge to wander far behind them, long ago. They were happy in their new lives, and for them the lure of the trail was a distant memory.
Not so for Gideon.
One of the things he loved best about his work was that it took him to places he’d never been before. This time, though, it was taking him home.
He sighed, reminded himself that Wyatt and Rowdy meant well. It was just that, being Yarbros, they tended to come on strong with their opinions, and they treated him like a kid brother—emphasis on “kid.”
He was twenty-six, damn it. A man, not a boy.
Gideon reined his musings back in, corralled them in the right-now. Distractions could he lethal for someone in his line of work, and of course trouble tended to strike when a person was thinking about something other than the immediate situation.
Against the far wall, up to its clawed crystal feet in dirty sawdust and peanut shells, the piano gave a ghostly twang, as if one of the wires had snapped. Gideon spared enough of a grin for one corner of his mouth to quirk up, but the face he saw reflected in the streaked and dusty mirror behind the long bar barely registered the change. His dark blond hair was in need of barbering, he noticed, and he’d need a shave, too, if he didn’t want a lot of hectoring from his sisters-in-law, Lark and Sarah, when he showed up in Stone Creek tomorrow.
Again, the piano sounded just the echo of a note, a sort of woeful vibration that trembled in the air for a few moments, along with the tinge of stale cigar smoke and sour beer.
“Damn place is haunted,” the barkeep said, either to everybody in general or nobody in particular. He was a bulky type, balding, with a belly that strained at the buttons of his stained shirt and a marked tendency to sweat, and watching him wipe down glasses with a rag made Gideon wish beer came in bottles. “I swear it’s that piano player that got himself shot in the back last year. Never had no trouble until ole Bill Jessup bit the dust.”
Gideon didn’t acknowledge the remark—he placed little or no stock in tales of spooks and specters—but he recalled the shooting well enough. Rowdy followed such things, being a lawman, and he’d mentioned the incident, in passing, in one of his letters. Mail from home—Stone Creek being the only place Gideon ever thought of in that particular context, and then not with any great degree of sentimentality —was infrequent, and since he moved around a lot in his profession, it generally took some time to catch up to him.
“You want another whiskey there, Horace?” the barkeep asked the old man. He sounded nervous, like he didn’t want to offer, but feared dire consequences if he failed to make the gesture. Not that the leprechaun represented any threat to the bartender; Gideon would bet the shriveled-up little old man wouldn’t have weighed in at more than a hundred pounds if he’d been sopping wet and wearing granite shit-kickers.
And from the looks—and smell—of Horace, he’d gone past “enough” a long time ago, but he grunted, without looking up, and shoved his glass out to be filled again.
The barkeep poured the whiskey, standing back farther than seemed sensible and sweating harder. Gideon took all this in, not because he was interested, but because it was what he did. Working for the Pinkerton Agency after college and then for Wells Fargo, he’d learned to pay attention to everything going on around him even in the most ordinary circumstances.
He’d have bet that barkeep hadn’t washed his hands in weeks, let alone taken a bath. Gideon frowned and studied his beer mug more closely, hut except for a few smudges and a thumbprint or two, it looked passably clean. He wasn’t back East anymore, he reminded himself, with another slight contortion of his face that might have been accepted as a smile in some quarters. Best get over being so fastidious.
He felt the slight shift in the air even before the doors to the street swung open, a sort of quiver, similar to the throb of the piano strings, but soundless.
Setting his beer mug down, he watched in the mirror as two men came in from the street, single file, both of them the size of grizzly bears raised up on their hind feet.
No, Gideon corrected himself silently, these yahoos would dwarf the average grizzly. Despite the heat—he’d left his own suit coat at the train station, with his bags—they wore the long canvas coats common to gunslingers as well as ordinary ranchers, and both of them carried sidearms, the butts of long-barreled pistols jutting out of the waistbands of their dark woolen pants. Their gazes tracked and found the old man, sliced over to Gideon, sharp as honed knives, then swung back and bored into their target again.
“Monty,” one of them ground out, presumably greeting the barkeep. They’d paused just inside the doors, which were still swinging on their rusted hinges.
Monty gulped audibly, set down the bottle he’d poured the old coot’s drink out of, and took a couple of steps backward. Came up hard against the shelf behind him, with its rows of bottles and glasses. The front of his shirt, damp before, was nearly saturated now, he was perspiring so heavily.
“I only give ole Horace more whiskey ’cause he asked me to,” Monty spouted, as if he’d been challenged on the matter, working up a grimace of a smile that wouldn’t stay put on his face.
Entertained, Gideon suppressed a smile, along with the sigh that came along behind it. When he got to Stone Creek and started his new job—the one he’d lied to Rowdy and Wyatt about in his last letter—such amusements as this one would he few and far between.
He was in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon, he reminded himself, to have a beer, not watch a melodrama—or to participate in one. Still, the fine hairs were standing up on the nape of his neck, and the sixth sense he’d developed working as a detective was in fine form.
“You’d better go on back to the storeroom or the office and check on whatever needs checking on,” the taller of the two men told the barkeep. His voice had a thick, stuffy sound, as if at some point he’d had his head held under water too long, or hadn’t gotten enough air in the first few minutes after he was born.
It was hard to imagine him as a baby, Gideon thought, amused.
His mama must have been a big woman—or else she’d have split wide-open giving birth to the likes of him.
Monty was only too glad to check on whatever needed checking on—he gave Gideon a look, part warning and part pity, and skedaddled.
Gideon felt no need to reach for the Colt .45 riding low on his left hip, but he did take some comfort in its presence. Straightening, he rolled his shirtsleeves down and fastened the cuffs; and though he knew he appeared to be mainly concerned with emptying his mug, he had a full mirror-reflected view of the room through his eyelashes.
One of the men cleared his throat, though the pair still hadn’t moved from their post just over the threshold. “Ma says supper’s gonna be ready early tonight,” he announced, not exactly cautious in relaying this news, but definitely tentative. “She wants to be at the church on time for the pie social.”
So she had survived childbirth, Gideon thought. Either that or the woman in question was a stepmother. Out West, a lot of men ran through a whole slew of wives, wearing them out with hard work and childbearing and all the rest of it.
Gideon’s own mother had perished giving birth to him.
The old man grunted once more, that being his primary means of communication, apparently, but didn’t turn around or speak an intelligible word. He just drained his glass, made a satisfied sound as the firewater went down and reached for the bottle poor old Monty had left behind on the bar when he fled.
At last, the giants moved again, as one, like Siamese twins with no visible attachment. Strange for sure, that was Gideon’s involuntary assessment.
There were times when he’d rather just ignore goings-on, and this was one of them, but it wasn’t in his nature. He pondered everything, weighed and considered and sorted.
The taller fellow snagged Gideon’s gaze in the saloon mirror. “We don’t want no trouble now, friend,” he said. “We’ve come to take Dad home for supper, that’s all, so we’d he obliged if you didn’t mix in.”
Gideon gave a disinterested nod, waited to see if the old whiskey-swiller would raise an objection to what he’d no doubt regard as a premature departure.
There wasn’t much to him, for all that his sons were big as trees.
Like as not, he’d go along peaceable. Then Gideon would finish his beer, leave payment on the bar, and go on about his business—checking in to the hotel across the street, having some of his gear brought over from the train depot, getting himself shaved and sheared and bathed. He’d stop by the post office, too, in case some mail had straggled in since the last time he’d passed through Phoenix.
The brothers positioned themselves on either side of the bar stool, set their feet as if they meant to put down roots right through the sawdust and the plank floor beneath, exchanged wary glances, and simultaneously cleared their throats.
“Get on home,” the old man croaked, thereby proving he possessed a vocabulary after all, however limited, though he didn’t look at either one of them. All his attention seemed to be fixed on the bottom of that whiskey glass, Gideon observed, as if there was some kind of scene being played out there. “Tell your ma I’ll be along when I’m damn good and ready, and not before.”
“She said we’d better not come home without you if we know what’s good for us,” the smaller brother said gravely. “And you know we’ve got to mind, lest Ma lose her temper.”
With that, and another glance at each other, the brothers closed in and took hold of the old man’s arms.
And that was when all hell broke loose.
Dear old Dad turned into a human buzz saw, all jagged edges, ripping into the air itself, and practically throwing off blue sparks. He kicked and twisted and punched, spitting out oaths and cusswords that even Gideon, raised in the back of a saloon in Flagstaff, had never heard.
The brothers had all they could do to contain their pa, and the three of them tangled all the way across the saloon floor to the doors, a blur of fists and flying coattails and swear- words that sizzled like water flung onto a hot griddle.
Gideon pushed back from the bar, walked to the swinging doors, stopped their wild swaying with both hands. Watched over the top as old Horace’s sons flung him into the back of a buckboard by his suspenders, like a bale of hay by the twine. One of them scrambled up to take the reins, while the other climbed into the wagon-bed to hold the old man down with both hands.
And that took some doing, all by itself.
“Are they gone?” Monty asked tentatively, from somewhere behind Gideon.
Gideon turned, saw the bartender back at his post, but poised to hit the floor or make another dash for safety if Dad and the boys chanced to return.
“On their way home to supper,” Gideon said. “Looks like Ma will be right on time for the pie social.”
With that, he plucked a coin from the pocket of his tailored vest, walked over to the bar and laid it down.
“I don’t believe I caught your name,” Monty said, after swiping the coin off the bar with one paw.
“I don’t believe I gave it,” Gideon replied.
Monty narrowed his eyes, and recognition dawned, though Gideon had hoped it wouldn’t. His kinfolk were well-known in Phoenix, since it was only about a day’s ride from Stone Creek, and Rowdy, along with his best friend, Sam O’Ballivan, often had business there. As a boy, Gideon had accompanied them once or twice.
“You’re that Yarbro kid, aren’t you? The marshal’s little brother. I used to work in one of the saloons up there in Stone Creek, and I recollect that you took a bullet at a dance one night, trying to catch hold of some fool that rode a horse right into the Cattlemen’s Meeting Hall.”
As always, the word kid made Gideon bristle, way down deep where it didn’t show, and being over six feet tall, he didn’t consider himself anybody’s “little” anything, but he was feeling charitable after the beer, and somewhat resigned, so he let the comment pass. “Yep,” he said simply, turning to leave.
“That Chink sawbones fixed you up,” Monty prattled on. Maybe it was nerves, considering the scuffle just past, but he’d sure turned talkative. “Wouldn’t have given spit for your chances, but he pulled you through with his needles and poultices.”
That Chink. The term stuck under Gideon’s hide like a cactus needle.
“He saved my life,” Gideon said stiffly, “and the life of somebody I cared about.” Lydia Fairmont had been the other patient, he recalled, eight years old and one of Lark’s students. Rowdy’s wife had been the schoolmarm up at $tone Creek back then, and had taken the neglected child under her wing. Where was Lydia now? Maybe Lark would know. “And his name was Hon Sing.”
Monty hastened after him, came all the way to the sidewalk. “I didn’t mean no disrespect, Mr. Yarbro,” he prattled. “I truly did not set out to offend.”
Hon Sing, along with his wife, Mai Lei, had gone back to China, after inheriting the old Porter house and eventually selling it at a high profit, once copper was discovered in the foothills rimming the still-small town.
And that copper mine was the reason Gideon had been sent to Stone Creek. There was a strike brewing, and his job was to see that it didn’t happen.
He made no response to the bartender’s apology, beyond a cursory nod. Turning his mind to other things, he crossed the street, wending his way between horses and buggies and slow-moving wagons headed in opposite directions. The Desert Oasis Hotel offered some attractive amenities, including hot and cold running water, a decent restaurant and its own barbershop.
The lobby was opulent by Western standards, with carpets on the floors, leather sofas and copious potted palms.
Gideon registered for a room on the second floor and sent the hotel’s sweep-up man—a boy, really—back to the depot for his suitcase. Climbing the broad staircase, intending to put the tub in his room to immediate use, he wondered again now that she’d staked out a place in his thoughts how little Lydia Fairmont was faring. She’d be an adult now, since ten years had passed, and maybe not so little anymore, either, he reflected with a smile. She was probably married—even at eight, with her silvery-fair hair and violet-blue eyes, she’d shown the promise of growing into a very fetching woman one day.
Gideon’s smile slipped a little as he took out his key and let himself into the room. Lydia, grown up, with a husband and children? For some reason, the idea didn’t set well with him.
It was because she was delicate, he told himself. Too fragile, surely, to be bearing some man’s babies, or chopping wood or any of the thousand other hard tasks a wife was called upon to do.
He pushed the recollection of Lydia Fairmont to the back of his mind.
In Stone Creek, he’d have plenty to occupy his thoughts, between Rowdy and Wyatt and their families and the work he’d be doing at the Copper Crown Mine. He’d told plenty of lies as it was, and he’d have to tell more before it was over. Keeping track of them, so his story stayed straight and his brothers didn’t figure out his real reason for coming back home, would be as much as he could manage.
Anyhow, there was no place in his plans for a woman— at least, not the kind Lydia had surely turned out to be.
Lydia’a two great-aunts, Mittie and Millie, spinsters the pair of them and both in their late sixties, twittered like schoolgirls as they peered through the tall, narrow windows on either side of the front door.
A loud chugging sound came from the street, along with an ominous bang that caused Lydia, lurking unnoticed in the doorway to the main parlor, to start slightly.
“Here he comes now,” Mittie enthused, under her breath.
“Too bad he’s so fat and old and homely,” Millie lamented. “Our Lydia requires a handsome husband, one who’ll give her lots of children.”
“Hush,” Mittie scolded, in a whisper. “Lydia will hear you! And for the life of me, I can’t think why she would turn up her nose at a man like Jacob Fitch. He might he portly and of a certain age, and I’ll even concede that he’s not much to look at. But he’s rich and he owns an automobile.”
Lydia, carefully trained, since she’d been brought to this imposing house as an eight-year-old orphan, in many things, not the least of which was the wholesale impropriety of eavesdropping, cleared her throat delicately in order to make her presence known.
Both aunts blushed prettily when they turned to face her.
“Mr. Fitch has arrived,” Millie announced, recovering first. Like Mittie, she was small, almost doll-like, with the near-purple eyes that were the pride of the Fairmont line. As young women, the sisters had been breathtakingly beautiful, as their portraits attested. According to Helga, the housekeeper, Millie had loved a Confederate major, Mittie, a Union captain. Both men had been killed in the line of duty.
Word of the deaths had arrived on the same day, the legend went, and the aunts had worn mourning gowns ever since. Now, they contented themselves with the ups and downs of other people’s romances, especially their only niece’s.
If indeed the arrangement between Lydia and Mr. Fitch could he called a romance. It certainly didn’t feel like one to her.
“Let’s go and make tea,” Mittie said, snatching Millie by the puffed sleeve of her sad black dress and dragging her past Lydia, in the direction of the kitchen.
Lydia suppressed an urge to flee, or beg her aunts to tell Mr. Fitch she was indisposed— anything to avoid receiving the man and passing an interminable hour of “courting” in the parlor.
But, like eavesdropping, lying to evade one’s social obligations was not considered proper—and Lydia placed a great deal of importance on propriety.
As always, Fitch pounded at the front door, foregoing the bell, with its pleasant, jingly little ring.
Lydia smoothed her lavender dress, laid out for her that morning by Helga, because it matched her eyes. That, of course, had been before Mr. Fitch had sent his calling card ahead to announce an impending visit.
She dredged up another smile—it took considerably more effort this time—and went to open the door.
The man Lydia was to marry the following afternoon stood impatiently on the verandah, his motoring goggles pushed up onto his forehead in a way that was probably meant to appear jaunty, but instead gave him the look of a very plump bullfrog. He was covered in road dust—Mr. Fitch did love his automobile and was constantly racing along the dry and rutted roads of Phoenix at speeds of up to twenty miles an hour.
Often, he insisted that Lydia accompany him.
Now, he clutched a bouquet of wilting flowers, probably purloined from some neighbor’s water-starved garden, in his left hand. “Good afternoon, Lydia,” he said.
“Mr. Fitch,” Lydia acknowledged, with a coolness she couldn’t quite hide.
His small, too-watchful eyes swept over her. “You’re not dressed for the road,” he pointed out, his tone mildly critical. “Any wife of mine will always be prepared to go driving.”
Any wife of mine . . .
Lydia managed not to shudder, though the smile she’d put on—if it was a smile and not the death grimace it felt like—wobbled on her mouth. “It’s such a hot day,” she said. “I was hoping we could stay inside.” And I’m not your wife, Jacob Fitch. Not yet, anyway. Not until tomorrow.
Mr. Fitch trundled past her, into the house, nearly stomping on her toes. “Honestly, Lydia, this delicacy of yours is bothersome. Any wife—”
Lydia closed the door smartly behind him, cutting off the rest of his sentence. She was not delicate, had not been seriously ill since she was a child, though admittedly her appearance made her seem fragile. Like her great-aunts, she was small-boned, though at five feet two inches, she was taller than Mittie and Millie, and she did have a nice bosom.
Protesting that she was as healthy as anyone, however much she wanted to do just that, would serve no purpose. Jacob Fitch did not listen to anything she said, unless, of course, it was precisely what he wanted to hear.
He fairly shoved the flowers at her.
Lydia took them and her heart turned over at their thirsty state. “I’ll just put these in water,” she said brightly. “Do sit down in the parlor, Mr. Fitch and make yourself at home. I’ll only be a minute.”
Fitch tilted his head back, admired the high, frescoed ceilings, fading now, but still finely crafted. The huge chandelier glittered, though unlit—at night, powered by gas, it glowed, and even after all these years, it seemed magical to Lydia.
A faint smile touched Mr. Fitch’s narrow lips. “The old place could use a man’s touch,” he said huskily, letting his gaze drift slowly to Lydia, then over her, like a spill of something viscous. No doubt he was anticipating their wedding night. “And so could you.”
Again, Lydia managed not to shudder, but just barely. The thought of Jacob Fitch putting his hands to that lovely old house, much less to her naked body, made the pit of her stomach drop, as if from a great height.
Overcome with a flash of pure dread, she turned on one heel, biting her lower lip, and fled to the kitchen. Oh, to go right on through, out the back door, down the alley to—
She had no place to go.
No one to turn to.
Months ago, in a fit of panic, she’d sent off the letter, the one Gideon Yarbro had written to himself in case she ever needed to send it— Please come and get me right away, was all it said—when she was a little girl, recovering from pneumonia and the loss of her father. But there had been no reply, of course.
There wouldn’t have been, though, would there? Gideon, a mere boy at the time, anxious to reassure her, had scratched out that single line in penciled letters, sealed the envelope, addressed it to: Gideon Rhodes, Deputy Marshal, General Delivery, Stone Creek, Arizona Territory. Heaven knew where he was now, after a decade—he’d been bound for college that year, so it was unlikely that he was still the deputy marshal up at Stone Creek. And Arizona wasn’t even a territory anymore, it was the forty-eighth state.
These and other equally hopeless thoughts tumbled in Lydia’s mind as she ignored Helga’s penetrating gaze and filled a vase with cool water for the fading flowers. Now, she simply felt foolish for adding postage to that very old letter and dropping it through the slot down at the post office. She blushed to imagine it actually reaching Gideon—especially at this late date—and silently prayed that it had gone astray.
And yet it was her one hope, that letter.
“Why don’t you just tell Jacob Fitch to get back into that smoke-belching horseless carriage of his,” Helga, never one to withhold advice, asked intractably, “and drive himself straight off the nearest mesa?”
Helga’s disapproval of Mr. Fitch was of long standing, and so was her opinion of the automobile. One of the first such machines to appear in Phoenix, a point of pride with Jacob, the vehicle, with its constant sputtering and backfiring, frightened old Mrs. Riley’s chickens so badly they wouldn’t lay. Helga had laid the fault for more than one skimpy breakfast at Mr. Fitch’s door.
“You know I can’t,” Lydia said softly, taking longer than necessary to attend to the flowers.
Helga had been running the household for years—only Mr. Evans, the late butler and sometime carriage driver, had worked for the family longer—and she felt free to express herself on any and all matters concerning the Fairmonts.
“Miss Nell,” the sturdy middle-aged woman said implacably, “must be rolling over in her grave. You, the last hope of the family, marrying that old—”
Tears stung Lydia’s eyes, and she sniffled once, raised her chin the way she always did when a weeping spell threatened. Nell Baker, her father’s only sister, had come to fetch her up at Stone Creek after Papa’s death in a blizzard, thereby saving her from two equally frightening alternatives: being sent to an orphanage, or left in the care of her selfish, slatternly stepmother, Mabel. Nell had raised Lydia, with help from Helga, Evans and the great-aunts, hired private tutors because the local schools did not meet her standards, clothed and fed Lydia, allowed her to keep stray cats, bought her watercolor paints and fine brushes at the first indication of talent.
Most of all, Nell, a childless widow herself, had loved her.
Aunt Nell had passed on suddenly, the previous year, and Lydia still felt the loss like a nerve laid bare to a winter chill.
“I’ll tell him for you,” Helga said, in an almost desperate whisper, when Lydia didn’t reply to her suggestion. “I’ll send him packing, once and for all, and good riddance!”
Lydia, having forced herself to start toward the parlor, where Mr. Fitch was waiting, closed her eyes. They’d had this discussion before—Helga knew full well that most of the Fairmont money was gone. The house would soon follow, since it was heavily mortgaged. And while both Lydia and Helga would be fine if that occurred—eventually, anyway—what would happen to the great-aunts?
Phoenix had been a mere crossroads when Mittie and Millie had come to the Arizona Territory with their widowed father, Judge William Fairmont, after Union troops had burned their Virginia plantation, fields, house and outbuildings, during the war. This house, originally only three rooms, but enlarged as the Judge prospered and then grew even richer than he’d been in Virginia, was their haven, a sanctuary in a world that had already proved itself violent and harsh. Every corner, every nook, held some precious memory.
Except for church services on Sundays, the aunts never ventured farther than the garden out back.
“You must stay out of this, Helga,” Lydia said, after swallowing and without turning around.
“You could marry any man in this town!” Helga argued.
There was some truth in that assertion, Lydia supposed, but none of the men who’d offered for her had Jacob Fitch’s money, or his power. None of them could save the big stone house and its cherished furnishings, each one with a story attached. And none of them would be willing to provide houseroom to two very old ladies who still suffered from fiery nightmares and woke up screaming that the Yankees had come.
Mr. Fitch, the only son of an elderly mother, had already promised that Lydia, the aunts and Helga could all stay right here under this roof. On their wedding day—dear God, tomorrow—he would pay off any outstanding debts and declare the mortgage, held by his bank, paid in full—he had given Lydia his word on that. Even had documents prepared, so stating.
All Lydia had to do was marry him.
When she could sign “Lydia Fairmont Fitch” on the appropriate lines of the papers Jacob’s lawyers had drawn up, aunts and their memories would be safe.
Again, Lydia thought of the letter she’d mailed off to Gideon in a fit of panic, and something rose into her throat and fluttered there, like a trapped bird.
Even supposing Gideon would be willing to help her, what could he possibly do?
Nothing, that was what.
She had to stop this incessant spinning back and forth between hope and despair.
Gideon wasn’t coming to her rescue, like some prince in a storybook.
No one was.
Tomorrow afternoon at two o’clock, wearing Aunt Nell’s altered wedding gown, she would stand up beside Jacob Fitch in front of the cold fireplace in the formal parlor in that burden of a house and vow to love, honor and obey the husband she didn’t want.
“Lydia?” Helga whispered miserably. “Please. You mustn’t be hasty—”
“The decision,” Lydia said, for Helga’s benefit and for her own, “has been made, Helga, and there will be no further discussion.”
With that, Lydia left the kitchen, the vase containing Jacob’s flowers shaking in her hands, fit to slip and shatter into a million fragments.
Because Gideon passed through Phoenix at least once a year, he kept a postal box there, as he did in several cities around the country. That afternoon, shaven and barbered and bathed, he stuck the appropriate key in the lock and opened the heavy brass door, stooped a little to peer inside. Straightened as he removed the usual printed sales fliers and outdated periodicals.
Throwing these things away in a small barrel provided for the purpose, he nearly missed the thin, time-tattered envelope tucked in among them.
The letter had been forwarded numerous times, but beneath the cross-outs and travel stains, Gideon saw his own youthful handwriting, nearly faded to invisibility.
Gideon Rhodes, Deputy Marshal
Stone Creek, Arizona Territory
For a few moments, Gideon’s surroundings faded away, and he was back in Mrs. Porter’s kitchen up in Stone Creek, handing the letter to a wide-eyed, frightened child.
He heard his own voice, as if he’d just spoken the words of the promise he’d made that long-ago winter day.
“. . . if you ever have any trouble with anybody, all you’ll have to do is mail the letter. Soon as I get it, I’ll be coming for you . . .”