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Before dawn, Selone slipped out of Guntler’s Ridge. Her pursuer must have sensed the absence of his prey. For on the day of her departure he wandered all over town like a coyote. In the afternoon, he leaned against the hotel, a lit cigar in hand. He must not have cared for the taste, for he growled and smashed it under- foot. Viola tightened her bonnet ribbons and hastened inside. Paper-wrapped packages dominated the dining table. Mrs. Widener spun on her toes; a chicken swung from each hand. “Truly Reverend, you are a blessing! How long has it been since our last hardy supper?” The widow yanked over a stool and set to plucking her chickens. Viola gave her back a little grin. “Miss Blaise,” the reverend called. Viola joined him by the fire. He reached into his coat and pulled out a dainty parcel. “For you.” Her name, written in familiar, elegant scrip, beckoned her. Viola’s eyes blurred as she embraced the packet. “Thank you!” His facial creases softened. “You have your mother’s smile.” “You’ve always been there for me, from the time I was a child. So thank you—for everything!” She hugged him. The reverend awkwardly patted her back. After flashing one last smile, she flew up the stairs. No longer did she care if anyone saw her ankles. Once upstairs, Viola tore through the packaging. A letter and a gold-stuffed pouch tumbled out. “Dearest,” her mother penned, “I pray you are well and have not suffered too greatly in your current circum- stances. This letter contains your means home—may it reach you intact.” Viola’s smile flattened. “Your father prevails. I hope and pray you will return with a changed and obedient heart.” She crumpled the letter, only to smooth it out again. Her lamp burned late into the night as she studied each word. ~*~ The beaming widow served her golden-brown chicken. “The priest is absent,” the reverend said. The widow wagged her finger. “It’s his own fault. Reverend, please say grace.” Wintery air blasted their hot meal. “My mare—gone!” Selone’s pursuer came to supper in a snow- burdened trench coat. Instead of seating himself, he paced laps between the fireplace and gawking diners at the table. On his third round he halted before the hotel’s proudest feature: its large picture windows. He aimed his Colt Peacemaker across the street—and fired. A dark-haired woman, clad in scarlet, screamed, and ran inside the saloon. Viola’s fork clanked against the floor. “My glass!” cried Mrs. Widener. Snowfall blew in, coating the room in white powder. Boarders rose to restrain the blond stranger, but the man pushed through, outside to the street. He was gone just as swiftly as he had appeared. Viola snagged the preacher’s sleeve, dragging him to the parlor. “Now is not the ti–” “Just listen. I’ve traveled so far, I’ve been so unsure. Yet now I know exactly what I want to do. A friend out there needs me. You and father never got along. But since the beginning, you have been kind to me. Indulge me one more kindness. Let me buy your mule.” She shoved her mother’s gold his way. He groaned from a deep place within. “Keep your gold. Just go home to your mother—alive.” ~*~ She descended wrapped in shawls and robes. Below, the newly-arrived saloon owner raised his fists. Men shielded Mrs. Widener or squabbled over how to best board the window. Viola bowed her head and se- cured her scarf. Her single valise accompanied her to the reverend's mule. She strapped down the widow's shot- gun. Hopefully extra gold with her bill would sooth all wrath. The snow storm showed mercy, lifting its veil from the land. The woman possessed no weapons. The man packed a devious heart and loaded revolver. Viola ached to return home. But Selone needed her first. Reckless, irrational, ungraceful—all the flaws attributed to her throughout her life appeared true. But today, she would add a virtue: bravery, fighting bravery. Mother, please wait for me. The mountains summoned Viola. Guntler’s Ridge faded behind her. 22
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