Prosperity, Washington Territory
August 2, 1877
The noose lay heavy around Jolie McKibben's neck, smelling of sweat and horseflesh and hemp. Frantic protests of innocence had long since rendered her throat too raw to speak, and she felt nothing except a certain defiant numbness as she stared back at those who had gathered to see her hanged. Her blue-green eyes were dry and hot, but a tiny stream of perspiration trickled between her breasts, like a tear gone astray.
She stood in the bed of Hobb Jackson's hay wagon, her fair hair sticking to her scalp under the dusty bowler hat she wore, her wrists bound tightly behind her back, her chin at the most obstinate angle possible. She could hear the team of horses behind her, neighing and blowing impatiently in the slow heat of a summer morning. In another few moments, the marshal would give the signal, the horses would pull the rig from beneath her feet, and she would be left to dangle and choke at the end of that dirty rope.
All because she'd had the bad judgment to fall in with Blake Kingston. It didn't seem just that she had to die for what he'd done, but then, Jolie had never known life to be fair. For her, it had been a struggle, right from the very first.
The undertaker, a heavy man sweating in a dark suit, dried his brow with a handkerchief and raised his round face to look into Jolie's eyes. "Let's get this over with," he said. "Miss McKibben's been duly tried and sentenced and there's no sense in dragging things out."
Jolie felt her knees go weak and tried to put the starch back into them by sheer force of will. "I didn't rob the bank," she croaked out, needing to say the words one last time even though they'd been falling on deaf ears for a month. "And I didn't shoot anybody, either."
"Just hang her," someone called from the crowd.
It was then that a big man came out of the mercantile, a flour sack over one thick shoulder, his face hidden by the brim of a large, stained hat. He wore plain brown trousers, a rough-spun shirt the color of buttery cream, and an old buckskin vest. He silenced the yammering spectators just by sweeping them up in a single scathing glance, then set the bag on the wooden sidewalk with an unhurried motion and came down the steps. He crossed a street paved in mud, manure, and sawdust and stood at the rear of the wagon.
"Now, Dan'l," fretted the wizened old marshal, "don't you go interferin' in this here hangin'. We done tried this woman right and proper, and we found her guilty."
Daniel. Jolie's heart gave a surging thump, but she couldn't afford to hope for rescue. The disappointment would be another burden, and the load she carried was already crushing.
The farmer swept off his hat, revealing a head of wheat gold hair, and gazed up at her with eyes the same shade of blue as a summer sky in the early morning. He was not handsome, this man, and yet something wrenched painfully inside Jolie as she regarded him.
"This the lady bank robber?" he asked, his low voice revealing none of the agitation that raised an invisible charge from the small mob gathered to view the proceedings.
Jolie ran the tip of her tongue over dry, cracked lips. For reasons she couldn't begin to sort through, it was crucial that this particular man not walk away believing she was guilty of robbery and murder. She took a step forward, and the rope chafed the delicate skin of her throat.
"Doesn't look like the type to me," Daniel reflected, raising one brawny hand to rub a clean-shaven chin. Desperate to find something to focus on other than the grim realities, Jolie took note of the fact that he was the only male present who didn't sport a mustache, a beard, or both.
The corpulent undertaker -- his wagon stood waiting nearby, with the name Philias Pribbenow stenciled on the side-waddled forward, mopping his nape with the kerchief. "If you were interested in the proceedings, Daniel," he said, "you should have shown it before now. The time for arguments and consideration is past."
Judge Chilver, a man with red-rimmed eyes and skin that seemed too loose for his face, stepped forward, a little smirk curving his lips. "'Course, there is the weddin' ordinance," he said, pushing back his coat to tuck his thumbs into the pockets of a food-spotted brocade vest. He scanned the impatient lookers-on before fixing another unctuous smile on Daniel and cocking a thumb toward Jolie. "You marry the lady and we'll call off the hangin'. Have no choice but to string her up if she breaks the law again, o' course."
Another man, this one young and darkly handsome, wearing black trousers, a matching vest, and a gambler's ruffled white shirt, called a suggestion from the porch of the Lone Wolf Saloon. "I think Beckham should cover what Jolie McKibben stole from the bank, too, if she's going to be his wife."
There was a general murmur of agreement at this, and Jolie didn't dare breathe as she watched Daniel's jaw tighten. He muttered a curse and slapped his dusty hat against a solid thigh. "It wouldn't be right," he said, narrowing his eyes as he gave the prisoner a swift inspection, "hanging a woman. You'd better send her on up to Spokane and let the territorial court handle the trial."
Until moments before, Jolie would have sworn she'd cried out all her tears. Now, moisture was pooling in her lower lashes, and her vision was bluffed. She was only twenty years old and she'd never known a man or held a baby of her own, and she didn't want to die.
Chilver got out his pocket watch and flicked open the case with a brisk movement of his thumb. His eyebrows arched as he checked the hour. "Time's a wastin', Dan'l,"' he said.
"I'll marry her," Daniel said, and it was as though the words were dragged out of him. He plopped the hat back onto his head, vaulted into the rear of the wagon with surprising agility for someone of his size, and lifted the rope from around Jolie's neck. She came near to sagging against him in relief but caught herself at the last moment.
He undid the rawhide ties that were cutting into her wrists, hooked his hands under her arms, and lowered her easily to the ground. Then he was towering beside her, as hard and substantial as a tamarack tree.
Jolie swayed slightly, and he caught her briefly against his side. She was tall for a woman, nearly five feet nine inches, but her chin reached only as high as Daniel's shirt pocket. She heard the murmurs and mutterings of the townspeople as if through a wall of water, and saw Hobb Jackson scramble into the wagon bed and pull down the rope he'd slung over the tree branch earlier.
The judge was peering into her face, his breath ripe with whiskey and a general lack of hygiene. "How about you, little lady? You want to marry Dan Beckham?"
Jolie swallowed. She'd never seen Mr. Beckham before and, for all she knew, he was a Republican, a drunkard, and a woman-beater, but it seemed to her that her choices were severely limited -- at least, for the moment. "I'll marry him," she rasped. Now that she was fairly certain she wouldn't swoon, bile was stinging the back of her throat and her stomach was jumping.
"You sure about this, Dan'l?" the old politician inquired, rocking back on his heels, cocky as a bantam rooster.
The muscle in Daniel's jaw flexed again. "I'm sure," he said, avoiding Jolie's gaze this time. "Let's get on with the marrying. I'll draw up a draft for the money later."
Jolie's surroundings undulated around her as she struggled to absorb the shock of unexpected salvation. All the while, she was praying she wouldn't throw up on the farmer's boots and convince him to withdraw his offer. The throng moved in closer, as curious to see a wedding as they had been to witness a hanging, and Jolie made herself meet one pair of eyes, then another and another.
I'm alive, she challenged them silently, and damn you to hell for wanting to watch me die.
"I've got a license on my desk," Mr. Chilver said brightly. "It's just a matter of saying the words."
The irony of being married by the same judge who had sentenced her to hang by the neck until dead was not lost on Jolie, but she was still too shaken to grasp all the nuances of the situation. She was going to live to see another sun blaze over the ripening wheat and the timbered foothills, and that was all that mattered.
Judge Chilver provided the necessary paper, and Daniel and Jolie stood under the oak tree that would have been her gallows. The townspeople pressed close, paying avid attention, elbowing each other and snickering.
Jolie made the responses that were required of her, unaware of the tears that were making pale tracks in the mask of dust that covered her face. When it was over, she and Daniel both signed the ornately decorated document, then her new husband took her elbow and ushered her toward a battered wagon waiting in the alleyway between the mercantile and the feed and grain. Only when she saw the man's signature on the appropriate line did she realize that her name was no longer McKibben, but Beckham.
Mr. Beckham handed her into the box in an offhandedly solicitous way, then went back to pick up the burgeoning sack he'd set down when he came out of the feed store. After loading this into the back of the wagon, he climbed up into the seat beside Jolie, who sat ramrod straight with her hands folded in her lap, reached for the reins, and released the brake lever with one boot heel.
He favored the population of Prosperity with a cool nod and set the team of two sturdy brown mules in motion with a flick of one wrist.
Jolie's thumbs twiddled, and she bit her lip, her eyes narrowed under the brim of her hat as she watched the weathered facades of the town's main street fall behind. "Why did you do it?" she finally asked, when the wagon wheels were jostling over two hard-packed ruts and spring wheat waved on either side of them. "Why did you marry a woman you don't even know?"
Daniel waited so long to speak that Jolie was beginning to think he didn't plan on responding, but then he looked squarely into her filthy face and said, "They were going to hang you."
It was the obvious reply, Jolie realized she had been hoping for something quite different, though she didn't know exactly what that something was. "Suppose I really am a criminal?" she ventured cautiously. After all, it wouldn't do if she got Daniel Beckham to thinking he'd made a mistake and ought to take her back to hang from the single oak tree in the center of town.
"Are you?" he countered, gazing thoughtfully on the rumps and sweaty backs of the long-eared mules pulling the wagon.
Jolie felt her cheeks burn beneath the coating of dirt. "No," she replied, a little indignantly. "I was just with Blake and Rowdy, that's all. I didn't know they were going to rob the bank." Even though she'd been over the fact a thousand times, it still stung Jolie that Blake and Rowdy had not only done that horrendous thing, but had abandoned her to face the consequences alone.
Daniel -- she couldn't quite bring herself to think of him as her husband -- shifted his hat slightly forward to scratch the back of his head. "That raises another question. What were you doing with the likes of Blake Kingston in the first place?"
Again, Jolie flushed. It made for a long, complicated story, the way she'd hooked up with Blake. She didn't delude herself that anyone, least of all Daniel, would believe the truth -- that she had never been intimate with either Blake or Rowdy, even though she'd traveled with them for nearly two weeks. "I worked as a maid, back in Seattle, in the same house with Blake's mother. She was the cook."
The team and wagon topped a knoll, and Jolie's attention was diverted to a large, white frame house flanked with tidy-looking outbuildings. There was a well house with a shingled roof, and as they drew up in front of the barn, she saw a moat of bright blue cornflowers blooming around a black iron pump a few yards from the kitchen door. A board spanned the mud puddle beneath, supporting a bucket to catch drips.
A row of poplar trees stood guarding the place from wind, and all around the wheat flowed and rippled like a golden sea. The stalwart blue of the sky was poignantly beautiful to Jolie, since she'd come so near to closing her eyes to it forever.
Daniel set the brake, wound the reins around the lever, and got down, raising his big, calloused hands for Jolie.
She took solace in his strength as he lifted her to the ground.
"Get yourself cleaned up, then see what you can rustle up for dinner," he said.
Since Jolie had never really known kindness from a male, Daniel's order didn't strike her as particularly abrupt. Besides, she was too grateful to quibble over a little thing like how a man framed his words. She nodded, and when he turned to walk away, she reached out impulsively and caught hold of his shirtsleeve with two fingers.
He looked back at her over one shoulder, his expression unreadable because his features were hidden by the brim of his hat.
Jolie let go of his shirt and spoke shyly, her eyes lowered. "Thank you, Mr. Beckham."
Daniel did not acknowledge the offering, neither was there an unspoken "you're welcome" in his tone. "There's food in the pantry," he said instead. "Deuter and I will be hungry, so make sure you put plenty on the table."
With that, her unlikely knight turned and walked away, toward the barn. Jolie watched him go, wondering who Deuter was even as she decided it would be inappropriate to ask, then set out for the house.
The back threshold was at least a foot off the ground, so Jolie hoisted her riding skirt and goose-stepped into the kitchen. It was a surprisingly clean place, with whitewashed, walls and solid wood floors and a big iron and chrome cookstove that gleamed in the fierce light pouring in through spotless windows.
Jolie took off the derby hat that had given her some protection from the sun and hung it carefully on one of the pegs next to the door. There was a shaving mirror on the wall opposite the stove, and she frowned as she looked into it. Her blond hair was straggling down from its pins and clinging wetly to her gritty neck, and there was a mask of dirt covering her face.
She found a basin in the pantry, along with shelf after shelf of preserved fruits, meat, and vegetables and enormous supplies of sugar and lard and beans. Yearning for a bath and clean clothes, Jolie contented herself with a splash to her face and hands, helping herself to tepid water from the reservoir on the side of the stove.
When she felt presentable, Daniel Beckham's new bride set two places at the table and brought a jar marked "sausage" from the pantry. She built up the fire with wood from the box beside the stove and dipped water into a saucepan, setting the preserves inside so the heat would melt the lard that encased the meat. She found cold milk, butter, and cheese out in the well house, and fresh-baked bread in a metal-lined storage bin in the kitchen.
The aroma of just-brewed coffee was pungent in the air when the back door opened and Daniel appeared, immediately followed by a young, husky boy with dark red hair, huge brown eyes, and shoulders that could have been measured with a wagon axle.
"This is Deuter," Daniel said, hanging up his hat. "Deuter, Mrs. Beckham."
Jolie was pleased to be referred to so formally; it made her feel a little less like some stray found on the side of the road. Despite the pass her life had come to, she had some pride. "Hello, Deuter," she said, with a polite nod. By then, the lard surrounding the sausage had melted, and Jolie drained the fat into a tin can and dropped the meat into a cast-iron skillet.
"Pretty enough to kiss all over," Deuter remarked, drawing Jolie's harried attention back to him with a start. Out of the corner of one eye, she saw Daniel turn away to hide a grin.
Jolie's cheeks were hot. "I'll thank you to keep such comments to yourself, Mr. Deuter," she said stiffly.
"Just Deuter," replied the farmhand, showing resignation but no sign of remorse. "And I pretty much have to say whatever comes into my head. Don't exactly know why."
"Let's get washed up," Daniel told him, ladling hot water from the stove reservoir into a basin. This he carried outside, along with a bar of yellow soap, and Deuter followed.
Jolie heard splashing, then Deuter returned to fill the basin with fresh water for himself. Daniel, looking scrubbed, sat down at the table, frowning as he regarded the two place settings.
"Aren't you eating?"
Averting her eyes, Jolie shook her head. "No, Mr. Beckham -- not now. My stomach isn't feeling right."
Daniel sighed and reached for the platter of reheated sausage when Jolie put it on the table. "Guess that's no great wonder," he commented, and dropped the matter at that.
Deuter came in, hung the blue enamel basin on its nail next to the stove, and joined Daniel. The boy looked strangely ingenuous, with his slicked down hair and clean hands and face, like a first grade student eager to please his teacher.
"I'd -- I'd like to look around the place a little, if you don't mind," Jolie dared, sinking her teeth into her lower lip while she awaited Daniel's answer.
"You could sure use a good scrubbing," Deuter remarked, cutting off a chunk of the ground sausage with the side of his fork and scraping it onto his plate.
Again, Jolie saw just the hint of a smile touch the corner of Daniel's mouth, though he made no comment.
"And you could use a lesson in manners," Jolie responded.
Deuter wasn't in the least chagrined. "No good. My ma and all my teachers tried everything. Didn't work."
"Look around all you want," Daniel said with diplomatic formality, although his amusement had now risen to his eyes.
Relieved at the opportunity to escape, Jolie dashed through the dining room and found herself in a genuine ladies' parlor, complete with frilled pillows, china figurines, potted palm trees, and photographs in ornate silver frames. There was an organ in front of the bay window, and delicate ecru lace curtains of the finest quality billowed in a stray breeze around the polished instrument.
Jolie went to the fireplace, which was fronted with white and gray fieldstones, and squinted at the daguerreotype displayed prominently on the pinewood mantel. It was obviously a wedding picture, and the groom was Daniel. Behind his chair, with one graceful hand resting on his shoulder, stood a bride resplendent in lace and silk. She was small, delicate as a cameo, with rich dark hair and large, expressive eyes.
Jolie felt diminished, just looking into that guileless face, and she was consumed by a need to know the woman's name and what had happened to her. And because she was in no position to ask, she propelled herself out of the parlor and inspected the small, simply furnished study on the other side of the entryway. Here, Daniel kept ledgers and books of all sizes and sorts.
Reading was a trial for Jolie, though she could make out what she needed to know if she tried hard enough, and she felt a pang as she backed out of the study. She wondered what Daniel would think when he realized he'd married a woman who was practically ignorant.
Mr. Beckham probably wouldn't be at all surprised to learn she could barely manage the written word, she reflected with a long sigh. After all, their entire courtship had taken place within five minutes, under the shadow of a hangman's noose.
Her face throbbed with heat as she climbed the stairs, clutching her dusty skirts in her hands to keep from tripping on the hem. It wouldn't do to get romantic ideas; she was lucky just to be alive.
Upstairs, Jolie found three spacious bedrooms, two of which were furnished. Jolie felt the first flash of alarm she'd had since the rope had been draped around her neck that morning. She was Daniel Beckham's legal wife, never mind that they were complete strangers, and there was little doubt in her mind what he would expect after the sun went down.
If he waited that long.
Her knees sagged, weakened by the prospect of lying down for a man for the first time. If it hadn't been for that, Jolie wouldn't have sat on the edge of Daniel's sturdy four-postered-bed the way she did.
The creak of hinges startled her, and her eyes went wide when she realized Daniel was standing in the bedroom doorway. There was a look of quiet hilarity in his gaze, but there was also wanting; even in her relative innocence, Jolie would have recognized that anywhere.
"Why do they call that boy 'Deuter'?" " she asked in a shaky voice, hoping to distract Daniel from the inevitable, at least for a little while.
Holding his hat in one hand, he rested one shoulder against the doorjamb, and everything in his manner said he'd seen through Jolie's ploy. "It's short for Deuteronomy. The lad did his damnedest to learn to spell it, but he could never get any further than Deuter, so he finally just stopped there."
Under other circumstances, Jolie might have been amused. As it was, she was too terrified to appreciate levity. "He should have kept trying," she threw out, desperate to keep the exchange going, puny as it was.
Daniel shrugged and straightened. "There's where you and I don't see eye to eye," he replied easily. "If he hadn't been the most determined kid in three territories, he probably would have stopped at 'Deut.'"
Jolie swallowed hard. "I suppose you have lots of work to do out in the barn and the -- the fields."
To her wild relief, he set the hat back on his head. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "I do. I'll see you around supper time."
The relief left Jolie dizzy, and she couldn't help closing her eyes for a moment as it swept through her system, like warm brandy mixed with sugar and cream. "Aren't you afraid I'll take off or something?" she asked, after a short interval of catching her inner balance.
Daniel was just about to turn away when she looked at him again. "It would be my guess that you don't have much of anywhere to go," he said. And then he was gone, his boot heels making a rhythmic sound on the naked wooden stairs.
Jolie thrust herself off Daniel Beckham's mattress. When she heard a door slam in the distance, she went to the big, plain oak wardrobe opposite the bed and opened it. Shirts hung neatly within, along with trousers, but there was nothing for Jolie to wear.
She moved on to the second bedroom, which was smaller and boasted only a washstand, a trunk, and a narrow iron bed. Daniel had been only too accurate in surmising that she had no place to flee to, and the fact nettled Jolie almost as much as the disheveled state of her person.
She found a blue calico print dress in the trunk and, although the garment would definitely be too short for her, she figured she could squeeze into it and thus have something to wear while she washed out her own clothes.
Jolie hurried downstairs and, after a visit to the outhouse, which was all but covered in fading purple lilacs, she returned to the well house for the washtub she'd spotted there earlier. As she left the cool darkness for the bright afternoon, with its buzzing bees and pungent aromas, the toe of her shoe caught against the edge of a loose board, and she tripped. The washtub went thumping and clanging onto the hardpacked dirt path outside and Jolie gripped the sides of the door frame to keep from failing, a splinter stabbing into her palm.
She flinched, then turned to stomp the offending board back into place with a vengeance. Outside in the sunshine, she plucked the piece of wood from her skin and pressed the small wound against her mouth, exasperated.
First, she'd come as near to hanging as any sensible person would care to, then she'd been married to a man she'd never laid eyes on before in her life. Now, she'd practically been crucified.
This was turning out to be one hell of a day.
As Daniel chopped and stacked the firewood he and Deuter had brought down from the hills the day before, he recalled the time he'd seen Hobb Jackson drop a bulging burlap sack into Caldron Creek. Daniel had been hunting that morning, and he was on foot, carrying a brace of grouse in one hand and his rifle in the other.
The moment he'd seen the bag drop from Hobb's hand, he'd known it contained another batch of kittens. Seized by a rage that made him want to bellow even as it strangled all sound from his throat, Daniel had flung down the rifle and his game and run to the creek.
Hobb was long gone by the time he got there, and Daniel splashed into the icy, thigh-deep water and wrenched the sodden bag from the rocky creek bottom. By the time he got back to the bank and carefully cut the burlap open with his hunting knife, four of the small, furry bodies inside were still, but one, a sputtering tom, gave a watery yowl and promptly bit Daniel's finger.
He smiled as he swung the ax. Even though she wasn't of the same gender, his new bride had more in common with that ornery little feline than the luck to survive. She'd had the same expression of terrified rebellion in her eyes, standing there in the back of that wagon, waiting to be hanged, and Daniel figured the biting would come next.
He stopped, mopped his sweating forehead with one sleeve, and set another chunk of wood on the block. Deuter was moving in and out of the shed, stacking the split pine and fir to season for a few months.
Just then, Daniel saw Jolie chase the washtub out of the well house, the palm of one hand pressed to her mouth. A moment later, she was heading purposely toward the kitchen door, carrying the tub by its handle.
The deduction Daniel made was both simple and ordinary. Jolie was about to take a bath -- something most people did at least once a week -- but now the knowledge made his blood burn in his veins like kerosene. He felt his groin tighten painfully as he imagined her stripping away those seedy old clothes of hers and stepping naked into clean, hot water.
By that point, Daniel's concentration was so strained that the ax head bounced off a knot in a piece of wood and came within an inch of opening a crevice in his shin. With a mighty swing, he set the blade deep into the chopping block and then swept off his hat.
"Guess you could go watch her wash if you wanted to," Deuter commented, from the doorway of the woodshed. "She's your wife now."
There were times when the boy's peculiarities got on Daniel's nerves, and this was one of them. Although he had no fond feelings for Jolie, he didn't like the idea of another man -- even one as young and backward as his hired hand -- speculating about such private matters. "I want that wood stacked by sundown," he said evenly. "You'd best get back to work."
After that, Daniel gathered his forces and forced himself to take up the ax again. And the image of Jolie bathing didn't cross his mind more than four or five hundred times in the next half hour.
Copyright © 1992 by Linda Lael Miller