Life wouldn’t be worth spit if he lost his ranch. But after herding longhorns for twelve hours and working half the night at the Gold Nugget mine, Benjamin Ricker was too doggoned tired to dwell on his troubles. Ben gazed at the clear blue Montana sky through the hole in the roof of the Golden Harp Saloon. It was a wonder the entire place hadn’t burnt to the ground. When the lightning struck, Pete, the owner, had slammed a mug against the cedar bar and shouted, “Free drinks for anyone who helps to save my place.”
After twenty-four hours of free liquor, the wooden establishment rocked with crude jokes, off-color language, and endless drunken laughter. Pete told a raunchy story that stirred the noise to frenzy. Then everyone grew quiet.Ben’s spine stiffened as the swinging wooden doors behind him creaked back and forth. “My good Lord,” Pete muttered, eyes wide, as if the Man Himself were standing there.
Ben swung around and stared in disbelief. What was a nun doing in a saloon? She was a little thing, wearing a long, black habit. Ben blinked twice. Could two beers make a man hallucinate?
Pete hurried across the room and wiped his hands on the stained white apron tied around his waist.
“Good day, Sister. What can I do for you?”
“How kind of you, sir. I’m Sister Elizabeth. It seems I’ve gotten lost.” The nun pulled a tattered newspaper clipping from her pocket. “I’m looking for Welcome, Montana.”
Ben felt sorry for her. Little did she know she was standing smack dab in the center of Welcome.
One night three months ago, Pete had dictated the words for the advertisement that would encourage new families to move to their small community. After adding a few embellishments of his own, Ben signed his name to the piece of paper. When he read the finished masterpiece aloud, everyone in the bar shared a good laugh. On a whim three days later Pete mailed the article to a newspaper back East.
Pete cleared his throat. “Well . . . Sister Elizabeth, you aren’t lost.”
She barely blinked. “This is Welcome?”
She unfolded the clipping and glanced down. “This article was written by Benjamin Ricker. Do you know where I may find him?”
Pete pointed an incriminating finger toward the bar. “As a matter of fact, that’s Ben over there.”
Sister Elizabeth stepped toward him, her blue eyes blazing with anger. A tendril of russet hair had escaped her black habit and hung limp over her damp forehead. She inhaled a sharp breath. “Are you Mr. Ricker?”
Ben settled his hat more firmly on his head. “Yes, ma’am . . . er, Sister.”
She waved the paper in front of his face. “You wrote this article?”
“Where’s the church, the library, the Golden Harp Theater?”
He remembered coining the term Golden Harp Theater and how hilarious it had seemed at the time. He shrugged. “It’s all here, Sister, if you use your imagination.”
She tapped her laced black shoe impatiently against the saloon’s sawdust-covered floor. “In other words, Mr. Ricker, this entire newspaper article is nothing but fabrications.”
Ben met her tempestuous blue eyes and smiled. “No Sister, I don’t lie, but sometimes I do stretch the truth a bit.”
* * * * *
Elizabeth O’Hara glared at the foolish grin plastered across Ben Ricker’s unshaven face. The town was a far cry from what she’d envisioned when she’d read the newspaper article. Disappointment twisted inside. Welcome, Montana, had seemed the ideal place to escape.
Her nose wrinkled in disgust as she detected the smell of beer on Ben Ricker’s breath. The even stronger stench of alcohol in the room mingled with the odor of deviled eggs, sweat, and Heaven only knew what else.As Elizabeth glanced around the room, she slid the toe of her shoe over the sawdust littering the wooden floor. In the corner stood an ornate, chrome-trimmed cast iron stove, a bucket of coal nearby.
She tried not to notice the two spittoons strategically located by the bar. Signs on the wall at opposite ends of the room advertised beer for 17¢, applejack for 20¢, redeye or corn whiskey for 25¢.
Excluding the stained apron around his waist, the bartender was the only neatly attired gentleman in the room. He wore a crisp white shirt, a deep red silk bow tie, matching suspenders, garters on his sleeves and gray trousers.
Leaning against the banister of the staircase leading to the second floor stood a woman whose large bosom threatened to escape from the bodice of her violet silk dress. The garment sported a fashionable bustle and layered ruffles and was as nice as any dress Elizabeth had seen back East.
Eyes lined with kohl and lips a deep crimson, the bold woman anchored one hand to her shapely hip and winked. “Good day, Sister.”
She stepped forward and directed Elizabeth to an empty table away from the bar. “Call me Queenie. Sit down, Sister,” she said while waving a hand toward the bartender and taking a seat. “Pete, a couple tall glasses of lemonade would be nice.”
Nothing was turning out as Elizabeth had hoped. When she’d pulled into town, she heard an ungodly racket, saw its source and felt panic for the first time. Until then, she’d told herself nothing could be as bad as what she’d run away from.
The wooden saloon vibrated with deafening noise. The crude comments coming from inside turned her stomach. As her wagon rolled along the dung-covered street, she saw three drunks on the wooden walkway. Another lay face down between two horses hitched to a rail. Worse still was the one relieving himself beside Luke’s Trading Post while he sang a little ditty that reddened her cheeks. She rounded the corner of the next building, shoved her beaded reticule beneath the wagon seat, and quickly donned the black habit she’d brought along for such an occasion. For years she’d noticed how men treated nuns with respect.
“What brings you here, Sister?” Queenie asked.
Elizabeth assumed a pious pose. “My parish saw the article in the paper and thought Welcome would be the perfect place for Sister Agnes and me to establish an orphanage.”
Queenie glanced toward the door. “Is Sister Agnes outside?”
“No. She’s going to meet me here in another month or two. Until then, I need to find work and a place to stay.”
Pete arrived with two mugs of lemonade and set them on the table. Elizabeth felt a moment’s panic.
Her money was gone.
Queenie batted thick lashes at Pete. “Honey, add it to my tab.”
Elizabeth reciprocated with a gracious smile. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing, Sister. Just put in a good word for me with the Man Upstairs.”
Pete lifted a shaggy brow. “If you ask me, she’d better put in a hell of a lot more than a good word.”
Queenie let the comment roll by. “Do you know of anyone who’s hiring? Sister Elizabeth doesn’t want to twiddle her thumbs while she waits for her partner to arrive.”
Pete scratched his chin and glanced toward the spring sky through the gaping hole in the roof.
Elizabeth tried to appear calm. “Maybe some of the local children need tutoring in reading and arithmetic.”
Pete met her eyes reluctantly. “Not many children in Welcome. There’s a baby, still not weaned, and Clyde, but he can’t even talk, much less learn to read.”
Desperate, Elizabeth glanced around the room and spotted the piano in the corner. “I could sing for my room and board.”
“Though I’m sure you have a right nice voice, the songs you know belong in the Lord’s house, not in this rowdy bar. If I could, I’d give you free board, but my upstairs needs fixin’, and the rooms won’t be ready for another few weeks.”
“Where else can I stay?” Elizabeth took another sip of lemonade and tried to hide her anxiety.
Pete’s face brightened. “I have an idea. Ben,” he shouted above the racket. “Come over here a minute.”
Ben Ricker sauntered across the room. In need of a shave and a haircut, he wore a tattered cowboy hat, torn jeans, and a western-style shirt caked with dust. When he looked up, his deep amber eyes warmed Elizabeth’s insides and reminded her of the whiskey her stepfather stocked in his liquor cabinet.
“Aren’t you looking for a cook?” Pete asked after a pause. “Sister needs a job for a few weeks.”
Although Elizabeth didn’t want to work for Ben Ricker, she was desperate and would take any job, even shoveling horse dung off the streets of Welcome.
Looking dazed, Ben hesitated a moment. “You cook, Sister?”
She tilted her chin with confidence. “Certainly.”
“Can you make beef stew?”
“My beef stew stands alone.”
“I can’t pay much. Just room and board and let’s say . . .” The hint of a smile resurfaced. “One dollar a week.”
Never mind that her time in any kitchen was next to nothing. Indignation rose in her voice. “That’s robbery. No decent cook would work for so little money.”
A victorious look claimed his face. “You turning me down?”
The skunk wanted her to refuse his offer. “Will my room be near the kitchen?” She’d need to be close by.
He hesitated. “Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Can I keep everything that’s in my wagon in my bedroom?” She prayed the liquor had dimmed his brain enough not to ask pointed questions.
He lifted one shoulder in an easygoing shrug. “As long as you can cook, it doesn’t matter to me what you keep in your room.”
Elizabeth hoped he was a man of his word.
“I heard you telling Queenie about your plans to start an orphanage. Make sure that waits until you’re off my place. I can’t have a bunch of children running amok on my ranch.”
An innocent smile seemed the most prudent answer.
Satisfied, he nodded. “We better be moving so you’ll have time to fix supper. Oh, one other thing. Can you make biscuits?”
“Do birds fly?”
A moment later, Queenie and Elizabeth followed Ben Ricker’s broad back through the swinging doors.
He looked over his shoulder. “Where’s your wagon, Sister?”
“Around the corner,” she replied as a scream pierced the air from the direction she’d pointed.
Drawing his gun, he took off with Elizabeth at his heels and Queenie huffing and puffing several yards behind. As they turned the corner, Ben Ricker’s expression changed from disbelief to fury.
Six-year-old Joshua sat in the only wagon in sight, dangling a harmless snake in front of his nine-year-old sister’s terrified face.
“Joshua, throw that down this instant or I’ll take a switch to you.” Elizabeth tried to ignore the wrath on Ben Ricker’s face.
Not easily daunted, Joshua sent Elizabeth a sidelong glance and tucked the grass snake in his shirt pocket.
“I’m warning you, Josh. Get rid of that snake right now.”
With a mischievous grin, the boy took a flying leap out of the wagon, landed on all fours, hopped around like a stallion, and after a minute set the snake loose in a clump of grass.
Elizabeth nodded approvingly. “That’s a good boy. Now climb back in the wagon. We’ll be leaving soon.”
Ben lifted his hand in protest. “Whoa, I’m not so sure about that. Five minutes ago, we agreed no children.”
Elizabeth stepped closer until they stood toe to toe. “If you recall, I never said a word.”
Queenie elbowed Ben Ricker in the ribs. “Looks like the Sister also knows a little something about stretching the truth.”
Ben Ricker’s eyes turned cold. “Dammit all to hell, this isn’t stretching the truth, it’s downright lying.”
“Mr. Ricker, I’ll not have you speaking that way in front of these poor orphans. If someone’s at fault, it’s you for fabricating that advertisement.”
“I mentioned children to you.”
“Maybe so, Mr. Ricker, but you never asked if I already had any in my care.”
“What do you aim to do with them?”
“They’ll stay with me in my room, of course. You already said they could, remember?”
He fell silent and seemed to mull over the matter.
“If I couldn’t almost taste the beef stew we’re having for supper, I’d send you on your way. You keep that boy and girl out from under my feet, you hear? I’m giving you one chance. One,” he said, waving his forefinger in her face. “I don’t want any more surprises from you, no more omitting facts.”
As Ben Ricker gave her meager belongings a cursory glance, Elizabeth spotted movement beneath the old burlap bag under the wagon seat. She casually pulled at the worn cloth, tucked Bernie’s tail out of sight and met Ben Ricker’s suspicious gaze.
“You have nothing to worry about.”
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