Chapter One: A Stranger in the Darkness
When I look back on the years that have passed, now woven with the rich fabric of experience and maturity, I realize there were times in my life that I will never forget. I’ve replayed them so often, they are now engraved upon my mind and heart. I will always remember the first time I rode a horse, and the first time I wrote my name. But my most vivid recollection by far is the night Aaron rescued me.
It was dark in my little nook in the attic on that cold fall evening, and I was supposed to have been asleep when the knock came at the door. If Mr. Fitzgerald had heard me rustling around, he would have heaved his hefty form up the rickety ladder to snarl at me, letting loose with a string of curse words or worse, a backhanded slap to keep me quiet.
He hated noise.
I hated him.
Back then, I was only a girl, barely an adult, with no schooling to talk of.
We were situated just west of where the caravans of travelers were headed, and it was not uncommon for one to come knocking.
The summer days had grown shorter, giving way to the colder, darker days of autumn. I could hear the wind rustling in the leaves outside my window when the knock came on the door. Quiet as a church mouse, I crawled along my straw tick so that I could peek just beyond the edge of the loft, lifting the threadbare quilt over my head and peering down to where the flickers of the fire in the hearth lit the small, dark room. Mr. Fitzgerald hoisted himself up from his seat by the fireplace where he was whittling something—probably the handle of another cruel whip he’d wield against his hapless mare—when he hauled the door open.
And that was the first time I laid eyes on Aaron.
He was so tall he had to duck to enter the small, dimly lit room. He wore a wide-brimmed hat he removed politely when he entered, revealing longish, sandy blond hair, as he bowed low to Mrs. Fitzgerald. Even from where I perched in my loft I could tell he was tired, his eyes drooping in exhaustion. His sandy beard was neatly trimmed, and he held himself erect as he addressed the Fitzgeralds. If I had known of such things then, I would have imagined him atop a throne in a vast kingdom, or leading a magnificent army to battle. Everything about him conveyed strength, authority, and fearlessness. He had broad shoulders and a wide chest that tapered down to a thin, trim waist, his navy trousers held atop his narrow hips with a wide, thick leather belt.
The winds whipped outside as Mrs. Fitzgerald scooted behind him and slammed the heavy oak door, fastening the latch, and wrapped her knit shawl more tightly around her shoulders.
“What can I do for you, son?” Mr. Fitzgerald asked, uncharacteristically polite, making my stomach twist with nausea. He was the cruelest, most self-centered man I’d ever known, and the mere facade of hospitality made me fist my hands by my side. But my nausea abated at the first sound of Aaron’s voice.
Deep, mellow, soothing yet commanding, a drawl I felt low in my belly. I could listen to the man read from the paper or recite a detailed list of supplies needed in town, and never grow weary of listening to his voice.
“Sir, my name is Aaron Stanley. My brothers Matthew and Samuel are travelin’ to stake a claim on a piece of land several days’ journey ahead of us. We had business to tend to at home, and our family has gone ahead. We’ve traveled for weeks, and my youngest brother’s ill. We’re askin’ if you’d see fit to allow us to rest in your stable overnight before we begin again in the mornin’.”
Fitzgerald’s eyes glittered in the firelight as he twisted his oily mustache. I knew him well enough to know he was hedging his bets. What would be the benefit to his purse or belly? His wife, of course, was clearly of the same mind.
“Troubled as your journey may be,” she said in a high-pitched, wheedling voice, “I’m afraid I don’t much cotton to the notion of bringin’ illness to our house.” My fists flexed, and the man’s jaw twitched. He bowed his head low.
“Neither my brothers nor I will come near your livestock or children,” he drawled. “And I’m also of a mind that the illness is due to the abundance of berries he ate.”
“Gluttony, then, and not the plague,” clucked Mrs. Fitzgerald with a fake laugh.
The stranger’s lips thinned. “Yes’m.”
Silence hung in the air and I knew Fitzgerald was waiting for the stranger to offer compensation. The man crossed his arms across his chest.
“I have no money, but my brother can offer a beaver pelt.”
I shook my head and crawled further back on my tick, no longer wishing to hear the details of the Fitzgeralds’ negotiations.
I remember being awoken by the wails of Mrs. Fitzgerald and the shouts of her husband. I sat up straight in bed, my heart hammering in my chest. It sounded like a veritable crowd downstairs, the sound of chairs and tables being overturned. My breathing came in gasps as I listened.
“We have nothing for you!” Mr. Fitzgerald lied. I well knew he kept the ivory-handled handgun he’d inherited from his father and a small sack of money in the chest in his room. I couldn’t identify the voices of the men who’d broken into their home, but I heard a crash and bang, the telltale sounds of gunfire, followed by a scream.
For the second time that night, I snuck as quietly as I could to the edge of my loft and looked below. Three men with scarves tied around their dirty faces were turning the entirety of the Fitzgeralds’ home inside out. The table and chairs were overturned, and to my horror, I saw Mrs. Fitzgerald lay in a crumpled heap on the floor, blood oozing in a pool near her belly. Horror paralyzed me. Would the armed men know I was hidden above?
Fitzgerald stood, his back plastered against the logs of the wall behind him, and his eyes were wide as saucers, his entire frame trembling. One of the assailants stalked toward him, his pistol gleaming in the light of the lantern that sat on the table. He poked the weapon into Fitzgerald’s ample middle.
“Ain’t got nothing for you!” Fitzgerald protested. “Take the girl!”
I watched, aghast, as the assailant’s eyes roamed the small cabin, resting on the ladder to the loft. I knew Fitzgerald was wholly self-centered and had no affection for me, but his willingness to throw me to the bandits rather than hand over his meager belongings still shocked me. Where could I go? There was no window in the loft, and the only way down was the ladder that led me straight to the three men below. My eyes wildly cast about me, looking for something, anything I could use as a weapon, but my possessions were meager, certainly nothing useful for self-defense.
“There’s a girl,” growled one armed man, as he stepped over the body of Mrs. Fitzgerald and the other bandit held Mr. Fitzgerald at gunpoint.
“C’mon down, girl,” coaxed the man at the foot of the ladder. “Yer not wantin’ me to come on up and fetch ya.”
I sat on my haunches, frozen, no weapon to defend me, my only thought to kick and scream and claw myself away, but what match was I against three grown men and a guardian who would feed me to the wolves to save his own hide?
A bead of sweat dripped down my forehead and off my nose. I wanted to scream and cry. I could only imagine the horrors these men would have me face.
“Here, kitty, kitty,” the man said in a sickly sweet voice that turned my stomach. I wanted to pull the blanket over my head, or crouch in a corner for protection, but I was frozen on the spot, my heart hammering in my chest. I could not, would not be overtaken by these savages! The man’s dirt-encrusted boot stepped on the first rung of the ladder. A sob caught in my throat. The second rung, and he was making good speed now as there were only a dozen steps before he would reach me.
“Here, little pussy,” he cooed. My stomach churned. As his step reached the next rung and his wicked eyes gleamed into mine, two things happened at once. My hand shot out, my fingers poking the man straight in his evil, protruding eyeballs at the same time the door of the cabin burst open. The man whose eyes I poked screamed like a wounded animal and fell. Mr. Fitzgerald took the distraction as an opportunity to make a break for it. He ran, and the man holding him at gunpoint shot, hitting him straight in the chest as two men entered the cabin. One I recognized as the traveler from earlier and the other was a younger version of the same gentleman. They each held weapons in their hands and fired. Shots rang out, deafening and final.
“Fall back and take cover!” yelled Aaron, and it took me several seconds to realize he was talking to me. I was still frozen at the top of the loft, my hands glued to the ladder, stricken by the scene below. My eyes met his for a fraction of a second and his were fiery, brooking no room for argument.
“Back!” he bellowed.
I leapt back in the shadows, obeying his command, closing my eyes tightly as I listened to the tumult below—gunshots, shouts, the sounds of cries of pain, and shattering glass. I sat with my eyes squeezed shut, praying to the Almighty my rescuers were the ones who would remain standing in the end. After a short time, the scuffle down below subsided, and to my immense relief I heard the familiar low voice of the man who’d ordered me to retreat.
I wasn’t much for praying, but I uttered a prayer of thanksgiving and scurried to the edge of the loft. But Aaron’s piercing eyes caught mine and narrowed the second I moved.
“Did I say come out?” he said, in a low, dangerous voice, his dark eyes stern and uncompromising. The harshness with which he spoke sent me scurrying back.
Crickets and cattails. I shrank into the corner of the loft and waited.
With Fitzgerald, I feared many things from the moment I’d come to live with him—being sent to bed without dinner, his vicious backhanded slaps if he was feeling ornery, or the horrible way he cursed at me when I vexed him. I hated the man. He was cruel and horrible to me, and I realized with shock that what I’d hoped to see below was his crumpled, massive frame on the floor next to his wife’s.
It was sobering to realize you wished someone dead.
But with Aaron, the fear was quite different. He did not seem cruel or malevolent, but rather bent on my safety. And though his tone of voice and manner made me shake, I found it was not the same fear I had with Fitzgerald. The man’s very first concern upon entering the cabin hadn’t been for Fitzgerald, or his wife, or even disarming the bandits. It had been for me.
I knew from the sounds of heavy dragging and the door being opened that the men were bringing out the bodies of those below.
“See to it Matthew obeyed my instruction to stay in the wagon,” the older man said to the younger. “And be sure the men are tied tight so they stay put until we summon the sheriff.” The door opened and closed, and I sensed we were alone. It was then that I heard him call to me.
“Come down now, girl,” he ordered. I trembled as I obeyed.
He stood at the foot of the ladder, his arms crossed on his chest, a bloody cut on his lip and one eye swollen half-shut. He was still as handsome as ever, which did nothing to ease my trembling. I had to turn my back to him to descend the stairs, and I felt self-conscious with his eyes boring into me. I only made it down a few steps before I felt two strong hands about my waist and I was lifted bodily off the ladder and placed on my feet. He gripped my elbow firmly and spun me around, bending a bit so that his eyes peered into mine.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, and I shook my head.
“No, sir,” I whispered. He seemed to visibly relax.
He stood back and his dark eyes appraised me. I wore nothing but a thin cotton gown, wholly inappropriate to wear in the presence of a man. He seemed to realize what I was wearing at the same moment I did, and he quickly turned and grabbed a knit blanket from the back of the rocking chair, draping it over my arms. I held it tightly over me as he stepped back.
“They didn’t touch you?” he asked, brows furrowed as he scowled at me.
“No, sir,” I repeated in a whisper.
“Good,” he said with a nod of finality. This was a man who demanded an answer, and accepted that what I said was truth. A man who spoke the truth himself. “Sit,” he ordered. I was more than happy to, because my knees trembled so I feared they’d collapse under me. I pulled out the wooden chair and sat down heavily, wrapping the shawl more tightly over my shoulders. My eyes were riveted on the stranger.
His bearded jaw and deep voice had led me to believe he was much older than he seemed now that I saw him up close, but upon further inspection, he seemed only seven or eight years my senior. He seemed to wield power, sheathed like the claws of a mountain lion, as he sat erect in a chair adjacent to mine. It seemed his scowl wasn’t directed at me, or anything I’d done. For that I was grateful.
I would not want to incur his wrath.
He folded his large, work-worn hands atop the table. His voice carried through the small cabin, low and apologetic.
“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but both Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald were shot and killed tonight.”
The news came as a shock, but I felt no sadness. Only… relief. I nodded and his eyes pierced mine, gauging my reaction.
“They meant nothing to you,” he said, almost sorrowfully. I shook my head.
“No, sir,” I said, lifting my chin and meeting his eyes. This man demanded honesty, and I would give him nothing short of the bald truth. “I’m not sorry to hear of their passing.” I offered no more. Though they’d treated me terribly, I felt in my heart it was the better choice to speak simply.
He gave one short nod. “They were cruel to you,” he murmured. It was a statement that held a question, so I answered his question with a short nod. “Not your relations?”
“Not my relations, sir, and no, they were not kind to me.”
I didn’t remember when Fitzgerald and his scrawny wife had picked me up, but I knew from the very beginning they weren’t my real mother and father. Real mothers and fathers did not treat their children the way these two had treated me. At least I liked to think that. But if I ever had any doubts as to the origin of my home with the Fitzgeralds, they were quick to point out that I was under their roof out of the goodness of their hearts. I’d have thought that the cooking and cleaning I did for free more than made up for what little food I ate. But how could I know?
His jaw clenched in a way that made me tremble, as if the power he held at bay threatened to escape, and his large hands fisted atop the table, but he kept his thoughts to himself. A knock came at the door. I jumped. He reached one large, rough hand out and placed it gently atop mine.
“That’d be my brother,” he said. His voice dropped. “Now stay put.”
I obeyed as he stood and unlatched the heavy door.
His brother entered. Both of them had the same wide, broad shoulders, amber eyes, and sandy brown hair. He looked older than I was, but still several years younger than Aaron. “All secure,” he said. “Matthew stayed put, and those men ain’t goin’ nowhere.” His eyes came to me. “She the girl?” he asked.
Aaron nodded. “Come with us,” he instructed. “Daylight’s comin’, and you’ll need your rest for what lies ahead.”
He turned and strode with large, purposeful steps to the door, but before he did, he reached to the shelf above the door and removed Fitzgerald’s long rifle, tucking it under his arm. His last words he spoke were so soft, I barely heard them, but when I did, they brought comfort.
“You’ll not sleep in this godforsaken cabin alone tonight.”
I followed Aaron and his brother to the barn. The moon was full and the yard bright, the white canvas of their wagon gleaming in the moonlight. The man came to my side and took me by the elbow, firmly marching me to the entrance of the barn. When the familiar smells of sweet hay and animals reached me, I felt myself relax. Mrs. Fitzgerald had frequently lamented the smell of the barn and hated it. She’d send me to collect eggs, water the animals, or milk the cows. But I loved it. I had no friends, and welcomed the solace and comfort of familiarity. But now I trembled with the man’s firm grasp on my arm as he pulled me to where a young boy stood behind a pallet of quilts.
“The girl was in the house,” Aaron explained. “We got her in time. She’ll stay with us tonight until we sort this out in the mornin’ with the sheriff.” He lifted his chin to the boy. “This is Matthew. My name is Aaron, and our other brother is Samuel. And you are?”
“Pearl,” I said.
“What happened, Aaron?” Matthew asked. Though he was many years younger, still school age, he had his brothers’ coloring and stature.
“Bandits, I imagine,” he growled. “Lookin’ for money.” His eyes roamed me briefly. “Or more. Those who weren’t shot are hogtied and unconscious.”
Matthew’s eyes widened and he whistled.
“Lord Almi—” he began and immediately stopped, his eyes growing fearful as he caught his brother’s eye. He’d been on the verge of taking the Lord’s name in vain, I had no doubt—Mr. Fitzgerald’s favored curse—and he paused as if he feared uttering such profanity in front of his brother. Aaron’s lips thinned as he fixed Matthew with a gaze so stern I wondered how the younger boy could remain standing.
“You were right to obey me and stay put, Matthew,” Aaron said evenly, crossing his arms on his chest. “And now you try my patience with curses? So soon you forget the whippin’ I gave you not two nights ago for cursin’?”
Matthew shook his head, his eyes wide. “No, sir,” he said, his voice trembling.
Fear and something else, something primal and elusive, spiked in my chest. I realized I was holding my breath.
“Good,” Aaron said with a frown, giving the boy a long, measured look. “Now go to sleep. We’ve a long day ahead of us.”
He grasped my elbow again, as if he were afraid if he let me go I would run.
He lifted a large quilt from the pile and took me to the other side of the barn where it was darker and cold. “You’ll rest here, and I’ll sit by the doorway so you’ll not fear for your safety. And when daylight comes, I’ll wake you and take you to fetch your clothes.” He pointed to a soft bed of hay. “There,” he ordered.
He handed me the quilt. It was not much different from the hard straw tick I slept on at night, and as I nestled down in my makeshift bed, I felt the weariness of the evening pressing in on me.
Aaron stood sentry in the doorway, arms folded across his chest, as I pulled the quilt up to my chin and closed my eyes. The excitement of the evening, the knowledge of the death of the Fitzgeralds, my concern for my own welfare, and worry about what the morning would bring plagued me. I tossed and turned, almost forgetting the presence of the stranger as I tried to get comfortable.
“Lie still and stop fidgetin’,” he ordered, his deep voice reverberating through the darkness around me.
I obeyed. Though tempted to toss and turn again, my instincts were to mind this stranger. I had no idea what he would do if I didn’t, but I had no interest in finding out. My eyes grew heavy, as I realized with surprise that the feeling I had was wholly unfamiliar to me. I probed, wondering what it was I felt that was new, and foreign, but so very welcome. But when the word came to me, I knew the truth in my heart and in my bones. There was something about this steely, honest, brave man that made me feel what I’d never felt in my entire life.