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Wagered Heart

By Robin Lee Hatcher

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Bethany Silverton swept her lime green and white striped gown out of the way and closed the picket gate of her family’s new home. Then with gloved fingers, she opened a matching striped silk parasol and rested it against her shoulder. From down the street, the sounds of laughter mixed with the brassy tinkle of piano keys spilled from the nearest saloon and into the main street of Sweetwater, Montana.

Bethany’s friend Ingrid Johnson shook her head. “It is shameful that those men drink so early in the day.” The words rolled off her tongue in a soft Swedish accent. “I do not know why the good reverend wanted to build his church here. He could have settled in a more civilized place long before this.”

Bethany hid her amusement behind her parasol. She couldn’t admit to Ingrid how much she liked this raw frontier town. After all, she had complained without ceasing when her father announced they were leaving Philadelphia to go west. She had declared to both of her parents she would never forgive her father for withdrawing her from Miss Henderson’s School for Young Ladies, for making her leave all of her friends behind, for removing her from the glittering society of which her wealthy grandmother—and by extension, Bethany herself—was a part. She had pouted when they traveled, and she’d pouted whenever they stopped along the way, waiting for her father to hear from the Lord if they had reached the place God meant for them to call home.

Now, two years after bidding Philadelphia farewell, she could admit to herself how much she loved the rolling plains and majestic mountains that surrounded her, how much she admired the men, women, and children who had left everything in hopes of making a better life for themselves in the West.

Even more, she loved her newfound freedoms. Her grandmother—the venerable Eustace Vanderhoff Silverton—would be horrified to know Bethany sometimes went riding without a chaperone or spoke to complete strangers without a proper introduction. Such things were not done by young ladies in her grandmother’s world.

Bethany shifted the parasol to her other shoulder and looked at Ingrid. “There were saloons in every town we passed through. You simply must ignore them.” She turned and began walking, Ingrid hurrying to keep up.

Sweetwater, Montana, was in its youth, a town flowering to life in service of the ranchers who laid claim to the vast grasslands. Its main street was lined with false-fronted buildings, including a mercantile store, two saloons, a small restaurant, a bakery, a livery, an apothecary and doctor’s office, and the sheriff’s office and jail. When the Silverton family arrived less than a week ago, the reverend had purchased a two-story home on the edge of town from a widow who was returning to Missouri.

This, he’d said, was where the good Lord would have them stay.

The first business the two young women reached was the apothecary. A small bell jingled overhead as Bethany opened the door and she and Ingrid entered.

A green-visored man looked up from his paper-strewn desk. His weathered face cracked into a grin. “How do, ladies. Can I help you?”

She stepped forward. “I’m Miss Silverton. My father is Reverend Silverton.” She motioned toward Ingrid. “This is my friend, Miss Johnson.”

“I heard we’d got us a preacher. Glad to meet you, Miss Silverton. You too, Miss Johnson. My name’s Wilton. John Wilton. My brother’s the doc here in Sweetwater.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. Miss Johnson and I don’t want to take up your time, but we wanted you to know that my father will be holding a church service this Sunday morning in a field tent behind our home. The service will start at ten.”

“Me and the missus will be there. My Sarah’s been praying for a pastor to come through these parts ever since we settled here. She’d want me to tell you she’s been eager to come calling on you and your mother, but she’s been feeling a might poorly. We’ve got us a new baby coming real soon now.”

“How wonderful, Mr. Wilton. Children are a gift from God. Please tell your wife I look forward to meeting her too.”

“That I’ll do. And good day to you, miss.”

The next business was the livery stable, where Bethany tacked up a notice of the church service near the main doors. Then they crossed the street to Mrs. Jenkins Restaurant. Once inside, Bethany introduced herself to the proprietress while Ingrid—ever shy around strangers—waited in the background. Again they received a warm welcome. The same was true in the mercantile and the bakery.

But as they left the sheriff’s office almost an hour later, their way was blocked by a man with a week’s worth of whiskers on his chin and a dusty, battered hat on his head.

“Well, would you look at what we got here. Ain’t you a couple of pretty little fillies.”

Bethany lifted her chin and leveled a cool stare at the grizzled cowpoke. “A gentleman, sir, would step aside and allow us to pass.” She spoke with an air of authority, one she’d learned from observing her grandmother. With her eyes, she dared the man to block their path.

In an instant, his face reddened. “’Scuse me, miss.” He stepped down into the street.

She resisted a triumphant grin. “Come along, Ingrid.”

Her friend’s eyes were wide with awe. “Are you never afraid of anything?”

Bethany laughed. “You are altogether too meek, Ingrid. You must overcome it if you’re to be happy here. We must be as bold and fearless as the land itself.”

She stopped walking at the far corner of the Plains Saloon and tacked another notice to the clapboard siding. The noise coming from inside was louder than ever. Twice she glanced toward the door, battling an almost irresistible temptation to peek inside and learn the cause of so much merriment. But, of course, she couldn’t do anything so unbecoming. She might relish her many new freedoms, but as a preacher’s daughter she had to be mindful of her position. Besides, Ingrid would go straight to the reverend if Bethany did anything so brash as look inside a saloon.

She turned from her task, ready to head for home, then stopped when she felt the hem of her dress catch, cringing as she heard the tearing of fabric. This was one of her favorite dresses, a gift from her Philadelphia cousin, Beatrice Worthington. She’d taken great care of it, and if it was ruined, she would be heartsick. There would be no replacing it in Sweetwater.

“Allow me,” a deep voice said.

She glanced over her shoulder in time to see a stranger bend down to free her skirt from the troublesome nail. When he straightened, she found her head tilting backward, ever backward in order to look him in the face.

He was over six feet tall with broad shoulders, lean but exuding an aura of power. She had never felt so slight as she did now. His features were boldly spaced, his skin dark, his jaw smooth and square. Blue-black hair brushed the collar of his shirt. She could read nothing in his expression, but his midnight blue eyes seemed to look right inside her head, reading her mind, judging her thoughts.

She gasped and stepped backward.

One corner of his mouth lifted, suggesting a smile. He turned away without a word.

“Bethany?” Ingrid’s hand clasped her arm.

She took another step back, her gaze still on the man.

“Look at this, Hawk.” A second cowboy, one Bethany hadn’t noticed before, pointed at the notice she had tacked on the wall. “They’re startin’ a church here in Sweetwater. We’re gonna get civilized. You gonna come to the service on Sunday?”

The man named Hawk looked behind him, his enigmatic gaze meeting Bethany’s once again. She held her breath, awaiting his reply.

“No,” he said and walked away.

“Come on, Bethany.” Ingrid tugged at her arm.

“Did you see him?”

“Of course I saw him.”

“I wonder who he is. Have you ever seen anyone so … so …” She didn’t know what she wanted to say about him. So handsome … so mysterious … so dangerous.

“He looked like every other cowboy we have seen in Montana. And certainly not the kind of man you would find in church.”

Bethany turned. “Why do you think that?”

“He said so himself. Weren’t you listening? He would not come even if you invited him.”

“But it’s our Christian duty to encourage everyone to come to church. How else are we to reach them with the good news?”

Ingrid shook her head. “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

His eyes were as wild and raw as this land. As if he’s a part of it. Surely that is why God called Papa to this place, to reach men like him.

A delayed shiver of reaction ran through her.

“I can see what you are thinking, Bethany, and I tell you, it will not happen.”

“Who says?” She tossed her head. “I’ll wager I could get him to services if I tried hard enough.”

Ingrid shot her a frown. “Gambling is a sin.”

“Oh, pishposh. This isn’t gambling. It’s a little game between friends.”


“I’ll wager you five dollars I can get him to come to church within thirty days.”

“I do not have five dollars.”

“Well, we’ll pretend you do. See. Then it isn’t gambling.”

“The reverend would not approve.”

“Then we simply won’t tell him.”


© 2008 Robin Lee Hatcher
— All rights reserved

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