The door opened cautiously as the head of a young teenage girl poked around the wooden barrier. Her emerald eyes carefully scanning the quiet kitchen. The coast was clear. It was now or never. Taking the only chance offered to her, she slipped out the back door and ran as fast as her shaking legs could carry her to the stables. She saddled her mare in record time. Her fingers trembled as they grasped the reins. Anticipation of being caught made her heart race. Her palms began to sweat, as her slender frame climbed up to the animal’s back. She was thankful nobody was near who could prevent her from leaving. Everyone was busy trying to break the new pair of colts her father had bought a week ago at auction.
As quietly as possible, Julia pulled on the leather reins and nudged her mare out of the stable doors, heading slowly toward the main road. Once the chance of being seen had passed, she kicked the large brown horse in the ribs with her heels, urging it to break into a run. Her long dark hair blew wildly behind her as the animal ran toward freedom. The heat of the summer sun blazed above, while the breeze dried her moist face and neck. The real fear of retribution kept her senses alert and her chest heaving in anticipation. Her creamy complexion flushed with her building anxieties, as the old swimming hole came into sight.
She groaned inwardly. Three hours late. Heather was going to kill her, but she couldn’t have avoided it. Her father had insisted she stay home today. He objected to the amount of time she had been spending away from her family and chores since summer vacation began. This had been a daily argument between father and daughter as the weeks turned into months and now there were only ten days left until class started again. She would soon find herself wrapped up in schoolwork, tests and exams, which also meant little time left over for having fun with her best friend.
Determined that their only daughter become a young lady of breeding, Julia’s parents had spent the past year discussing the idea of sending her to finishing school in Boston for her senior year. It was the sort of place that would train her to be a proper wife and teach her how to take her place in the world of high society, as the heir of Kentucky’s wealthiest horse breeder. Neither of which Julia was interested in.
Pulling her horse to a halt near the edge of the brush-covered surroundings, she jumped unladylike from her mare’s back and quickly tethered the reins around an old tree stump. She pushed through the tall trees, easing the branches out of her path as she called for Heather, but the only sound heard was the call of the birds in the dense tree tops. The muffled rustle of rodents in the thick underbrush echoed in the still warm air, scurrying out of the line of sight as she continued to push her way through the overgrowth. Surely, Heather wouldn’t have left so soon. She began to consider the late hour and frowned with aggravation. It was past Heather’s piano lessons, so the chance of her still being here was slim at best.
Julia edged closer to the large swimming hole her great-grandfather had made for his children, fifty years before, and looked quickly around the shadows for her friend, but saw nothing. With a resigned sigh, she sat on her favorite log near the edge. She and Heather had spent many long summer hours sitting on this log, daydreaming about boys, and discussing the future.
The air was unseasonably warm, even for late August, causing her neck to become hot beneath the heavy collar of her blouse, her hair stuck to her forehead, her breasts became sweaty under the layers of clothes binding them. Silently, she removed her riding boots and knit stockings, then pulled her skirt and petticoats up above her knees. She slipped her bare legs into the cool water, swinging them back and forth in front of her. The movement of her wiggling caused waves to ripple from one side of the swimming hole to the other, while the small retreating tides tickled the flesh around her calves. She began tossing rocks that lay nearby into the water, bringing several water soaked twigs up from their imprisonment of the muddy bottom.
Softly she sighed, shaking her head sadly to the silent trees. She had broken her promise to Heather…again. She said she’d be here at eleven o’clock and she hadn’t shown up. Heather had practically pleaded with her to come today, but she just couldn’t sneak out of the house any earlier. Julia had tried beseeching her father to let her leave, but it was useless. Even the staff seemed to be against her, watching her every move. She couldn’t blame them though. Once Victor Turner made up his mind, nobody was able to persuade him to change it. As a father, he was stern but loving, as an employer and former slave owner, he was known to be ruthless and callous. She couldn’t even manage to get a message to Heather to explain why she couldn’t make it as promised. Everyone was busy with those stupid colts.
Julia thought about Heather Farnsworth, her dearest friend in the entire world. They had shared so much over the years. Dreams and hopes, ideas and fantasies, even clothes and books. But somehow, things had begun to change between them as the summer months progressed. Heather seemed distant, almost a recluse. It all started just before school ended. She would sneak off without word to anyone and reappear hours later, smiling and blushing when asked where she had been.
Her parents were too busy trying to keep her sister, Sharon, out of trouble to notice the change in Heather, not that they would have cared. The Farnsworths’ relationship had been the talk of Mayfield for years. The scuttlebutt was, they were together only for their children’s sake. Both had nocturnal habits that didn’t involve family or marriage. This, in itself, had made Heather withdrawn since she was twelve, but that was a different sort of withdrawn than the one she had now. At least back then, Julia would be able to get her to talk.
For the past several weeks, Heather rarely spoke to her even when they were alone. She would just sit quietly staring off into space with a strange, almost mystical smile etched on her delicate young face. When asked about her odd moods, Heather would only giggle and say it was nothing important. Her attitude had been the main reason Julia desperately wanted to meet up with her today. She was going to force her to tell her what was going on.
Frustration edged its way deeper into her mind and Julia roughly tossed another stone in the water, this one nearly the size of her fist. Ripples raced across the water’s surface, crashing against the bank on the other side. Several more twigs rose from their muddy prison at the bottom of the pond, to float freely among the leaves and branches already adorning the cool water. She heard a rustling in the bushes behind her and turned with a start, straining to see through the thick foliage.
She couldn’t make out anything in the shadows beyond a bird or two lurking near the edge of the embankment, arguing over who would get a frightened grasshopper for supper. She turned back to the water, tossing more stones forcefully into the pond’s depth, as debris of all sort floated around her legs. It didn’t really help with her frustrations, but it did make her feel better to have something to punch, even if it was water.
Branches of all shapes and sizes drifted past her feet, entwined with discarded leaves from the tall trees. She watched as six colorful bird feathers floated across the pond’s surface like lost ships, searching for a home or a safe port in which to anchor. She sat transfixed on the sights and serenity of the swimming hole for several long minutes, wondering what she was still doing there and how she would ever explain her tardiness to her friend, not to mention what would happen if her father caught her sneaking back into the house.
Reluctantly, Julia surrendered to the moment and began to pull her legs out of the water. She readied herself to take her leave from the tranquility that surrounded her when something caught her attention in the brush on the other side of the pond. She narrowed her emerald eyes, unconsciously brushing the loose strands of dark hair from her face. It looked like a piece of faded blue cloth, entangled with the overgrowth that circled the water’s edge. She eyed the object from her perch on the log before standing up and wading up to her waist in the muddy water, curiosity taking over her movements. She reached it in just a few heavy steps. Her feet struggled to free her from the thick muddy depth of the water’s bottom, as her toes stumbled on the soggy branches buried in the muck. Julia reached for the fabric and tugged the corner of the material, trying to free it from the limbs it was caught on.
The harder she pulled, the larger the material seemed to become. It was heavy and hard to lift in the dense water. She tugged again, grunting and stumbling backwards, fighting against the mud imprisoning her bare feet. She continued to strain in her effort to free the material, stepping backward with each new pull of the fabric. She backed up to the edge of the pond, her dress twisting around her calves as she slowly brought the reluctant material out of its prison. She stumbled backward when the cloth at last broke free and began to drift away from the entanglement of twigs and limbs.
Julia recognized the material as it continued to grow in dimension and her frown deepened. It was much more than a mere rag, or water-filled sack. It was the dress she had given to Heather just last week, but what was it doing here? Had her friend been so angry with her for not coming as promised, that she had thrown it into the pond? That would mean she had walked three miles to her home in her petticoats. Not likely, she was sure.
Grasping the material’s hem, Julia pulled on it again, trailing it behind her as she made her way back toward the log she had been sitting on, causing large waves to slosh around her. The dress was heavier than it looked under the brush. If felt as if it was dragging a submerged limb along with it. She pulled harder still as she climbed out of the water and up the embankment, losing her footing and falling in the gooey mud. She cursed unladylike, smacking her hand in the sticky mud and splattering it across her bare arms and neck. She looked up at the dress that now floated freely in front of her.
She sat studying the dark, muddy cloth with interest. It was strange in appearance, both the way it floated and the way it seemed to mold to something much larger than a tree limb, as she had first assumed. Anticipation and curiosity bound within her, as she considered the reason behind why her friend would discard the very expensive, blue paisley dress in the muddy swimming hole. The lace collar had been torn partway off the neckline and was tangled in thin muddy strings. The sleeves were ripped and weighed down by something bluish-yellow in color, the cuffs pulled down beneath the surface of the water’s depths.
Julia sat in the disgusting mud, her bottom wet and soggy, her feet buried in the dense ooze. A frown creased her brow deeply as she watched a shadowed object slowly float up from beneath the dress, bringing the sleeve up out of the water. It looked at first as though it was a dead animal, a beaver or a duck perhaps had managed to get entwined around the material, but as she continued to watch it, the object took on an oddly familiar shape.
It was twisted and bloated and discolored, but there was no denying what it was. A hand poked out of the torn sleeve of the dress as it bobbed up from the bottom. With a sickening realization, Julia began to recognize the object in front of her. Her eyes widened with disbelief. What she first assumed were muddy strings tangled in the dress collar, were instead a mass of dark hair. She blinked repeatedly, trying to force her eyes to tell her what she was seeing wasn’t real.
The weight of the arm bobbed gently in the water, causing the torn dress to shift slightly as it floated closer to the edge where Julia sat watching it. The hem of the dress had caught on the limbs of a beaver’s abandoned dam, causing the heavy object to twist. The tiny toes of two black boots popped up from beneath the water’s surface, making Julia’s breath catch in her throat.
As if moving by an unknown force, she reached for an old branch in the mud beside her, poking sharply at the branches until the dress broke free, twisting freely in the rocking waves. Her pulse began to race and her breathing became sharp and raspy. A great splash sounded as the heavy object hit the bank and Julia found herself staring into the lifeless face of…oh my God…Heather!
A scream echoed around her like thunder in the clear afternoon skies, and with a harsh start she realized the sound had come from her own throat. She tried to stand, but fell back in the slippery mud still holding her ankles prisoner in a death grip. Pain ripped her insides and she sank further back into the wet earth, her feet struggling for freedom. Julia’s disbelief barely registered the dark purple gash slanting across her friend’s grotesquely bloated forehead. She twisted around, turning from the horror that floated within inches of her. Her clothes tangled about her legs as she tried to move away from the water’s edge. She stumbled and fell to her knees as she was driven back down into the mud. She fell forward, striking her lip and chin on a stone buried beneath the slimy surface. She continued to try and get away, ignorant of the blood seeping through the mud caked on her face.
Her eyes closed tightly and she screamed again, much louder than before, hoping someone would hear her. She pleaded with the surrounding bushes for help as birds squawked angrily above her, flying from their nests. Her soul began to sob violently as she prayed this was all just a cruel and thoughtless trick. Tears streamed down her muddy cheeks and neck, her throat becoming hoarse with the force of her voice, her heart ached with a pain that seared it in two.
A dark shadow remained hidden behind the dense brush, scrutinizing the scene with silent anger, mindful of the girl’s hysterics. It would be simple to dispose of her right now, she was helpless to fight, and nobody knew she was there. If struck from behind, she would fall easily in the mud. One quick move and she could join her friend in the unforgiving afterworld, one shove and they would drift together in a watery grave for eternity.
But grief gripped with the misery and a mournful soul silently screamed out in denial. The pain was greater than the need for retribution. Instead, the shadow moved quietly away from the swimming hole, careful to stay out of sight as the sounds of voices shouted, calling out. The girl’s screaming hid the noise of departing feet as they disappeared among the brush.
That girl...Julia Turner...she did this, she was responsible for all of this and she would pay for what had happened. It was her fault. It was a dreadful, horrible mistake and if there were even an ounce of justice left in this world, everyone’s little sweetheart would soon be encased in her own grave.
It should have been her, not sweet innocent Heather Farnsworth. A soft vow echoed through the shadowy soul, as tears of grief and sorrow streaked down a dirty face. Heather’s death would be avenged. Julia Turner would suffer the atonement for what had happened here today.
Two men sat at the small round table near the front of the saloon, laughing and talking cheerfully with each other. Stories and tales were exchanged from many years gone by, as the brown fluid from the whiskey bottle slowly began to diminish. Harold raised his glass again as the handsome, blondish-brown haired man next to him followed suit.
“Here’s to Margie Webster, soon to be Margie Leonard,” the man chirped, gleefully. “She is the only woman with whom I find myself in love with. I am the luckiest man out of all the blokes in Kentucky, all of America, hell, the whole universe.”
The glasses clinked with their salute, spattering the dark liquid across the rims and onto the table in front of them. They drank down the liquor in a large gulp, feeling the burn of its effects as it struck their throats.
A soft grunt of disapproval echoed from the dirty, unshaven man sitting alone in the corner of the room. His dark eyes shadowed from sight, hiding his penetrating gaze from the two men who glanced silently toward him. Two empty bottles of whiskey, as well as a partially full third one adorned the table in front of him. Wet puddles from many drunken attempts to fill his small glass lay across the wooden surface, running down the edge to settle on the floor. The man had made several comments since Harold and his new partner had entered the saloon, but so far they had been successfully ignored.
Daniel Browning was tall, young and handsome. His blondish-brown hair fell to his shoulders and was held back from his face by a silk ribbon. It was somewhat longer than the style most American lawyers preferred in this day and age, yet perfectly acceptable by those of his native country of England. His strong jawline and chiseled nose echoed an air of sophistication and pride. His powerful, muscular arms and wide span of chest, made most men think twice before challenging him. He looked like a human mountain. His exceptionally good-looks had not been lost on the two barmaids who made sure his bottle of whiskey was readily accessible. Along with his turquoise eyes, Daniel made the completed picture of architectural perfection.
He captured the attention of the town’s female population, as he walked freely about the train station after he arrived earlier that afternoon. Those respectable young ladies occupying the streets and stores, giggled as he nodded his way past them, while those of lesser respect, especially the girls working the local bar, made their interest known. The scantly clothed women with their brightly colored lace and satin bloomers, elastic garters and cheap cologne, made certain their invitations were understood. They slithered around the room, smiling and winking at him, nodding toward the stairs that led to the bedrooms hidden on the upper level.
Although he had been aboard a schooner the past two months, with literally no female companionship, he declined their suggestions repeatedly. He was eager only to settle into the town and his new office before trying to find a woman to share his bed. He arrived in Kentucky just that day, ready to join his childhood friend in his small law practice, started a few years prior.
Harold had moved to Kentucky after graduating Oxford, two years before the American Civil War ended. His office was small, but very successful, and when he asked Daniel to join him, the opportunity couldn’t be passed by.
Daniel was a model citizen in England, respected and revered. A prosperous solicitor in his own right, he came from a prominent family of wealth and title, so having to earn respect was new to him. Starting a new life was a novel idea, which was why he sold his share of the firm to his partners and moved across the Atlantic Ocean to be with his friend. It was the thought of starting a life where nobody knew who he was, that made it seemed romantic and quixotic. The notion intrigued him.
“Does this Margie know what sort of rogue she’s marrying?” Daniel asked with a soft chuckle on his friend’s blushing behalf.
“She knows I’m in love with her,” Harold answered. “And since I’ve been the perfect gentleman since moving to Kentucky, what more is there to tell?”
“What about that night in Bath, with those two lasses from Bristol?” Daniel teased, again earning his friend a red heat to tint his pale cheeks.
“Margie is a true lady, Browning, and I will thank you not to mention my past to her.”
“So, discussing the damsel from Wales is out of the question?”
“Damn straight!” Harold snapped, smiling at his friend’s deep laugh.
The man in the corner snorted again, much louder than before. He hadn’t particularly cared for the town’s newest arrival and listening to their conversation was causing his drunken mind to grow more agitated. From the moment his brown eyes set on the man whose mere presence demanded attention, there was a strong animosity toward him. The British accent along with the expensive dark colored waistcoat and suit jacket, made Daniel appear more of an outsider rather than one of the local residents. He sat with dignity, talked and laughed softly and made an overall picture of high breeding. All of this played on the man’s nerves, until he at last exploded in an abrupt display of anger.
“What the hell do ya know ’bout ladies?” he snarled, rising up on shaky legs and knocking the chair opposite him over.
His appearance was the result of many hours spent in the small, dark tavern. His breath and clothes thick with the scent of sweat and whiskey, as he approached Daniel and Harold.
“Ain’t no real ladies left in this here piss hole.”
“Take it easy, Overton,” the bartender commanded.
“Go to hell, Simmons. I ain’t talkin’ to ya, no hows. Well, Mister Fancy Breeches?” he glared at Daniel, as he wobbled closer to his table. “I axed ya a question.”
“I don’t find a need in replying to drunks,” Daniel insisted, sitting his glass back on the table, his fingers playing with it as an attempt to control his temper.
He’d been in enough pubs over the years to easily recognize the look in the man’s eyes. Daniel knew the man meant trouble and he would answer him, only if he had no other choice.
“Them sounds like fightin’ words to me.”
“I don’t want to fight you, Sir, so go back to your table, finish your drink and leave us alone.”
Daniel refused to stand. He was by far no coward, as his large muscular frame confirmed, but fighting drunks had never proved worthy of a man with his talents and skills. The other man would get hurt and wake up with broken bones and bruises, never remembering how it happened. This, to Daniel’s way of thinking, was far from a fair fight.
“Ya yeller, or sumpin?”
“No, I’m just not in the mood to fight.”
“Since when does a man ’ave to be in a mood, to fight?” the man growled, with a hooting laughter.
“Go finish your drink Overton, before you cause any more trouble,” the bartender shouted to him again.
“I told ya to stay outta this. This here’s between me ‘n Fancy Breeches. Well, mister, ya feel like makin’ me shut up?”
Daniel looked to Harold, who raised his eye brows in question to him, his thin lips fighting the urge to smile.
Removing his jacket, Daniel tossed it to the back of a chair next to him before slipping the elaborately engraved gold watch out of his waistcoat pocket, along with the silver flask he carried for emergencies, and laid them on the table. He stood from his chair, stretching himself up to a full six feet four inches. He confronted the man with a look of warning in his blue-green eyes, as he towered over the drunk by more than half a foot. His shoulders were broad and firm, the well-toned muscles of his arms strained against the material of his shirt, his hands large and powerful, offering a silent warning all on their own.
“I don’t want to fight you, Mr. Overton,” he said softly, yet clearly, his muscles bulging under his white silk. “Go sit down and finish your whiskey, before you get hurt.”
“Ya think yer that good, do ya? Well, I’m sick of listenin’ to ya ‘n ol’ blubber butt there,” he slurred, pointing a shaky finger at Harold, who remained seated at the table, interested and amused by the man’s reactions, as well as that of his heroic friend. “Ya don’t know beans ’bout what a real woman is, do ya?” Overton poked Daniel in the shoulder with a long bony finger. “Well I can tell ya this, there ain’t no more real women left in all of Kentucky. The last one left a month ago.”
“I think you should go sleep it off, Overton. It’s obvious you’re distraught and near ready to pass out.”
The anger was beginning to show in Daniel’s eyes as he stared at the drunk, fighting the urge to slug him and have done with it.
“Don’t go tellin’ me what to do,” the man growled in a wavering slur, his fist rolling up into a tight ball. “I ain’t tired ’n ya ain’t my pa, so put ’em up ’n fight, or go crawl back into yer hole.”
Daniel ducked the man’s punch as he swung blindly for his jaw. He dodged two more swings, before Overton’s aim finally improved and his fist came a little too close for comfort. Daniel reacted out of instinct and brought his large fist up into Overton’s gut, lifting him off his feet and knocking him to the dirty floor.
The man groaned in pain, struggling to stand, but in his drunken condition found it harder than anticipated. He stumbled back to the floor twice before securing his balance on unsteady legs, turning back to his abandoned table and grabbing the half empty bottle of whiskey by the neck. He raised it above his head, spilling the contents unnoticed down his arm and chest as he swung it in the air. He lowered the bottle to the table’s edge, breaking the end off in a shatter of glass, and then came at the much larger man again. Daniel ducked the attack easily and maneuvered behind him as he ran toward him on wobbly limbs. He grabbed Overton’s arm, wrenching the bottle from his grip then pushed him out of the way with one highly polished boot to his backside, sending him flying across the room to land on top of another table.
Overton stumbled to his feet awkwardly, trying to shake off the effects of the giant’s blow. He lunged blindly at Daniel once more, his arms flailing in the air. The two men fought for a very brief time, while shouts and cheers rose from the few patrons gathered around them, the commotion bringing in passersby from the street to watch.
It was far less than a real fight. Overton swung wildly at Daniel, who ducked the blows gracefully, striking back only when necessary. Within just a few minutes, Overton lay unconscious on the floor, his eye already turning black, blood running down his face from the cut beneath his cheekbone, his lips were red and swollen. His arm was twisted with broken bones, and his chest heaved with the labored effort to breathe around several bruised ribs.
Daniel stood his chair back on its legs, retrieved his jacket and brushed it off before slipping it on again and sitting back down as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. He accepted the glass of whiskey Harold cheerfully offered, raising it in salute from where he had sat watching his English-bred partner.
Three of the saloon’s occupants lifted Overton off the floor, just as the sheriff rushed in, his Colt .45 held tightly in his hand in anticipation of trouble. The tavern’s spectators enthusiastically relayed the story, each having his turn in the telling and leaving no detail out as they gathered around to repeat the tale. The sheriff ordered them to take Overton to the jail, where the doctor would be called to tend to his wounds and where he could sleep off the effects of his day’s activities.
“You want to press charges, or something, mister?” the sheriff drawled, turning to Daniel with a frown.
There wasn’t a single mark on him that could relate him to the encounter with the unconscious drunk.
“No, just let him sleep it off,” Daniel insisted. “He just had too much to drink. He didn’t mean any harm and most of the damage was his own doing,” Daniel continued with a short laugh. “He had a difficult time standing much less walking and ran over several chairs and tables. I only had to restrain him a time or two.”
“Impressive,” the sheriff said under his breath as he took his hat off and scratched his forehead. “Don’t know what’s come over him. He’s usually a real quiet boy, but the last few weeks he’s been plumb loco. Hell, the whole town has gone crazy. One girl dead, another sent east last month and now this. ’Fraid to ask what’s next.”
“No harm done,” Daniel replied.
The sheriff nodded his head, leaving the saloon and its occupants to recall the glorious details of the evening’s outcome in private. Daniel slipped his watch and brandy flask back into his pocket, before raising his eyes up to the amused look on his friend’s round face.
“Here’s to you,” Harold said, lifting his glass in one last taunting salute. “To your first night in Mayfield.”
Daniel clinked glasses with his friend, his eyes narrowing dangerously as he swallowed the burning liquid, growling softly under his breath as it floated down his throat.
“Do you greet all your new residents with such endearing hospitality?”
Harold snickered, filling the glasses to the rim with the last remaining whiskey from the bottle.
“Naw,” he answered with amusement. “Just the fancy breeches.”