May 1879, Montana Territory
"Miss Gwen! Miss Gwen! You gotta come quick!"
Gwendolyn Gallatin looked up from her sewing and cocked her head to one side, unknowingly imitating the family dog, Major Worthington. The sounds of occasional gunfire and celebrating from the saloon next door had been frequent this evening, but she was surprised to hear her name above the ruckus.
A young boy of fourteen burst through the open front door, panting. Sandy hair fell across his dirt-smudged face. "Miss Gwen!" He could scarcely get out the words.
"Goodness, Cubby, whatever is the matter?" Gwen put aside her sewing and got to her feet as her sisters, Lacy and Beth, joined her from the kitchen.
"It's your ... your pa," Cubby said, regaining his wind. "He's been shot clean through. My pa says to come quick."
Gwen's hand went to her throat as she exchanged a frantic look with her sisters. Lacy, who was the youngest of the three and not yet twenty, raced to the front door. She wore a long split skirt that allowed her easier movement, but Beth, dressed very ladylike, was right behind her.
"Take us to him, Cubby." Gwen felt as if the words were forced from her throat as she moved leaden limbs to follow her sisters.
"He's in the street. Just in front of Pa's saloon." Cubby followed the girls out the door, Gwen at his side.
A small crowd had already gathered when Gwen arrived. Lacy was kneeling in the dirt beside her father, and Gwen watched as Beth touched a lace-edged handkerchief to the older man's chest. When Gwen approached, the crowd parted, as if on cue. She could see the ashen color of her father's face and hear the whispered murmurs among the rough cowboys, who smelled of sweat and beer.
"Gwennie," her father whispered as she knelt beside him.
She put her hand to his head. He already felt cold. "Let's get him to the house," she told her sisters.
"Don't," her father said, straining to breathe. "I'm ... done for."
"Nonsense, Pa. People get shot all the time," Lacy said, pushing back an errant strand of her cinnamon-colored hair.
Beth wept softly, causing their father to give a slow shake of his head. "Don't ... be ... cryin', Bethy. I'm heaven-bound." He gave the girls an awkward smile and closed his eyes. "Don't ... make ... the coffee ... too weak, girls." And then he was gone.
Gwen looked at her father as if expecting something more. Surely he'd just succumbed to the pain. He couldn't be dead.
Beth looked up at Gwen. "He's not breathing."
Lacy was calling him. "Pa! Pa!"
The entire event unfolded like a bad dream. People were saying things, bustling about, but Gwen was frozen in place, unable to move or hear them clearly. Their father was dead. What were they going to do now?
"I'll take care of this," Simon Lassiter said, helping Gwen to her feet. His brother, Nicholas, was right at her side. The Lassiter boys had always been good friends to the Gallatins.
Gwen looked at him, noting the sorrow in his eyes. "What should we do?" she asked softly.
"We get the sheriff, that's what," Lacy declared. She looked at the gathering of cowboys. "Which one of you shot him?"
"Nobody shot him, Miss Lacy," Cubby said, shaking his head. "Leastwise, not on purpose. The boys-they was shootin' it up, celebratin'."
"Cubby's right," his father replied. Rafe Reynolds puffed on a cigar for a moment, then motioned to the gathering of drunken men. "Nobody was aiming to hurt George Gallatin."
"But he's dead, just the same," Lacy said, looking to Gwen. "Someone needs to get the law out here." She began to cry. "Pa deserves justice." Beth put her arm around Lacy and nodded.
"You ladies go on back to the roadhouse," Simon instructed. "We'll take George on over to the shop. Nick can ride for the sheriff while I get George ... well ... get him ready to ... ah ... bury." Simon wore a look suggesting he'd just as soon be wrestling a grizzly.
"I'll bring his suit," Gwen said without emotion. The shock of the situation washed her in a numbing sensation. Lacy and Beth were crying, but tears wouldn't come to Gwen's eyes. It was senseless to cry. Her father was dead, and it was clearly her fault as much as the man who'd fired the gun. After all, she was the one who'd sent him out that evening. And she was the one who'd been cursed.
* * *
"I can't believe this has happened," Lacy said as she stood beside the still-open grave of their father.
At nineteen, Lacy was the youngest of the Gallatin girls, as they were often referred to. She was more tomboy than lady and generally shocked social convention by donning boy's britches to ride astride or climb up on the roof to reset a shingle or two. She was the son their father never had, and Gwen relied on her for the heavier work around the Gallatin House.
"Dave Shepard said it was an accident," Gwen said, looking off past the grave to the crowd of people.
"Dave would say that," Lacy remarked, the sarcasm thick in her voice. "I talked to him and to Sheriff Cummings. Neither of them think it's anything more than an unfortunate incident."
Beth dabbed her eyes. "There's no way to prove who did it. The men were rowdy, and everyone was shooting it up. At least, that's what Rafe said."
Lacy crossed her arms. "I believe him about as much as I would believe the Major incapable of killing chickens."
Gwen cast a sidelong glance at the family dog that had sat faithfully beside the grave of his master for over two hours. "Talk like this won't get us anywhere." She looked at her sisters, read the deep pain in their eyes, and wondered if they blamed her for their father's death. God knew she did.
"Well, I'm gonna go give Deputy Shepard a piece of my mind," Lacy said, stomping off and pulling her skirts up high enough to avoid the better portion of the muddy path.
Beth looked at Gwen. "I'd better go with her."
"Yes." Gwen knew Lacy's penchant for taking umbrage with Dave Shepard and any other man who stood in her way. Having been only five when their mother died in childbirth, Lacy seemed to carry a perpetual grudge against the world-but especially toward the opposite sex.
Beth hurried after Lacy as Simon Lassister made his way to Gwen's side. "Sure sorry about your pa, Gwen."
Gwen nodded. "I know you are, Simon. I appreciate the casket you made. Let me know what I owe you."
"Nothin' at all. Nick and I wanted to do it by way of payin' our last respects." He lowered his gaze to the dirt. "He sure didn't deserve to get shot down like that."
"No," Gwen admitted. "He didn't. If I hadn't sent him over to your place to get the knives sharpened, it probably wouldn't have happened."
Simon looked back up. "This wasn't your fault, Gwen. You can't go blamin' yourself."
"I know," she replied, knowing this was the answer he expected. She didn't want to get into a lengthy discussion on why he was wrong, so she just nodded.
Gwen gazed at the man who was four years her senior. He wouldn't understand, even if she tried to explain it. Her life had been consumed by the death and dying of the people closest to her.
"Did you hear what I said?" Simon asked.
Gwen shook her head. "No, I'm sorry. I'm afraid I was lost in my thoughts."
"I asked if I could walk you back," Simon repeated. "Nick and I are going to tend the grave, and I'd rather you not be here for that. It might be difficult to watch."
Gwen glanced at the open hole in the ground. The wooden box that held the earthly remains of George Gallatin rested alongside the grave. She shook her head and turned to go. "No. You just do what you have to, Simon. I'll be fine."
Gwen couldn't resist, however, glancing over at the grave to the right. Harvey. She thought of how much her father and husband had enjoyed each other's company in life. Perhaps now they would also share that companionship in death. Yet sadly, she couldn't cry a tear for either one. A lifetime of loss and sorrow had taken its toll, and there were no tears left.
Gwen bowed her head and walked toward the house as she heard Simon and Nick lowering her father's casket into the ground. She'd left a piece of her heart in that grave, just as she had with all the others. Sometimes she worried that there wasn't any heart left inside her.
Harvey would have told her she was just being silly. Harvey had been so full of life; he didn't believe in curses or bad luck. He just believed in living life in a hurry. Maybe that's why he'd died at such a young age-he'd just lived up his life too soon.
"Sometimes I just want to punch that man in the nose," Lacy declared as she and Beth came alongside Gwen.
"What's Deputy Shepard done now?" Gwen asked softly, pushing aside images of the man she'd once loved.
"It's not what he's done," Lacy retorted. "It's what he's not doing. He's not even looking for our father's killer."
"Be fair, Lacy. There were a dozen men around that night, drunk and celebrating roundup. You cannot expect Deputy Shepard to know which stray bullet struck Pa."
Their little sister stopped dead in her tracks. "Well, someone's gotta do it. Guess it'll have to be me."
Gwen took hold of Lacy's arm. "Please. Can this wait? They haven't even laid the dirt on Pa's grave yet. Mrs. Shepard is at the house preparing a funeral dinner, and we have to at least try to keep up appearances."
Lacy's hard expression softened. "I'm sorry, Gwen. Of course it can wait. I wasn't thinking."
Patting Lacy's arm, Gwen began to walk toward the house. "We have so much to figure out. Pa left us everything, but the real question is, do we want it?"
"What do you mean?" Beth asked.
"I mean the stage stop. Gallatin House. Do we want to go on with it? It's the only thing Pa was ever any good at. The only thing ..." Her voice broke as she struggled to continue. "The only thing that gave him any success."
Beth put her arm around Gwen's waist. "He was good at it. People liked him, and he liked serving them."
They approached the log structure from the muddy stage road and paused. Last night's rain gave everything a look of being freshly washed. Droplets of water still glistened on the new grass and sparkled like diamonds in the midday sun.
The girls had watched their father fail at one job after another-attempts to strike it rich, to be accepted. Yet George Gallatin was nevertheless a thoughtful and gentle man who loved his daughters dearly. He brought the girls to the Gallatin area of the Montana Territory, certain that sharing the same name would bring them good fortune. Gallatin House was his only endeavor that had really thrived.
"He was a good man," Gwen finally said.
"He was always kind and never raised his voice," Beth replied.
"Pa never knew a stranger," Lacy added, her anger appearing to have passed, at least momentarily. She gave a heavy sigh.
Gwen squared her shoulders. "Well, it's not like we have to decide anything right now."
"I don't mind if we do," Beth replied. "I think we should stay. I mean, where would we go-three women, all alone?"
"Being three women all alone is also a good reason to consider going elsewhere," Gwen countered. "Remember what Mrs. Shepard said that one time: 'A single woman alone in the territory is like water to a thirsty man.' I suppose that would make the three of us like a water hole to a herd of parched cattle."
"I don't think I appreciate being likened to a water hole," Beth said with a frown. "Besides, it's not like we're destitute. We have a good home and friends, even if we do have to tolerate Rafe's Saloon and his desire to sully the reputation of everyone in the area."
"And we make good money from the stage contract," Lacy added. "We have a solid agreement with the freighters, too."
"Until the end of summer," Gwen replied. "The stage contract was to be renegotiated this August, don't forget."
"Then maybe that's the answer," Beth countered. "It's only May. Summer is just getting started, and the heaviest flow of travelers will be coming through. Why don't we just see what the summer brings and how hard it is to handle all the work on our own?"
"I agree," Lacy stated with a determined air. "That will give me time to investigate Pa's death and seek out his killer."
Both Beth and Gwen stopped and looked at their sister. "What?" Gwen questioned before Beth could speak.
Lacy looked at her with a shrug. "If the law won't see to it, I will. I'm not afraid to root out the situation and learn the truth."
Gwen frowned and shook her head. "I doubt fear is the reason the sheriff is less than enthusiastic to stretch this matter out. There's simply no way to know who shot Pa."
"Then hang them all," Lacy replied.
"You don't mean that." The shock of Lacy's statement registered quite clearly in Beth's tone. "You can't want innocent men to die."
"No. I didn't want Pa to die either, and he was the most innocent of them all. He wouldn't even take a drink, much less get drunk. Someone deserves to pay for this, and I intend to see they do." Lacy stormed off to the house, not giving either Beth or Gwen a chance to speak.
Beth looked at her older sister and shook her head. "You don't suppose she'll really do anything, do you?"
Gwen sighed. "Knowing Lacy, we'd better hide all of our rope. I could see her becoming a one-woman vigilante movement."
"Yes," Beth said, nodding as they began walking toward the two-story log house. "I'm sure you're right. I think Pa probably had the best idea when he suggested we put a lock on Lacy's door. One from the outside-not the inside."
Gwen smiled. "We may have to ask the Lassiter brothers to check into it."
* * *
That night after her sisters had retired to their bedrooms, Gwen crawled into bed and tried hard to forget the events of the day. She was grateful that the next stage wouldn't be through until Wednesday. That gave her another day to focus on the matters at hand.
She snuggled under the down comforter, feeling half frozen by the chill of the room. May in Montana meant the need for additional heat once the sun went down, but Gwen hadn't bothered to light the stove.
It started to rain again and the sound against the windows and roof made a rhythmic beat that comforted Gwen. She thought about praying, but it had been a long time since she'd given it much effort. After all, could God even deal with someone who was cursed? She'd often tried to find hope in the Scriptures, but verses continued to haunt her and give her reason to believe her cause was lost. She couldn't deny that there were nearly whole chapters that spoke of curses being real-that cursing people, even entire nations, was something God had done frequently.
It also looked to be that once God cursed someone, He turned His back on them, as well. Gwen could hardly expect that God would listen to her prayers if He had also cursed her.
She slipped deeper beneath the covers and curled up with her knees to her chest, just as she had done as a child when situations became too frightening. How she longed for comfort-for hope that things might be different. But nothing ever seemed to change.
"And now Lacy wants to take on the world-or at least the territory-and find Pa's killer. Poor Beth is up in arms over Rafe's soiled doves, and I'm stuck here, not knowing what to do about any of it."
Life in the Montana Territory hadn't been all bad, she had to admit, but there were some definite obstacles-mountains to climb and conquer. She thought of Harvey Bishop and smiled. Harvey had been her knight in shining armor-or at least her wandering troubadour with a passion for life. Harvey had come into her life so quickly and had exited in much the same way. The day he and Gwen had married, he fell ill with measles. Ten days later, it was his grave Gwen stood beside.
She stared up at the ceiling and tried to remember Harvey's face, but the image was fading. Everyone had suggested she keep her own name rather than take Harvey's. After all, the marriage had never been consummated. That alone had been a tremendous source of embarrassment for Gwen. Prior to marrying, she had worried about the merciless teasing that followed new brides. But everyone knowing and pitying her for not ever experiencing her marriage bed somehow seemed even worse.
"Don't worry about what those folks say, Gwennie," her father had told her. "Ain't no use listening to 'em or even givin' 'em the time of day. Our Harvey was a good man, and that's all that matters. You keep my name or his-don't make much difference to me. You're loved just the same."