The moment Charlotte Phillips opened the porch door, a wave of blistering heat smacked her in the face, threatening to burn the precious powder right off her skin.
"Good lord, there's fire in the sky out here. Don't you agree, Shady?" She stared down at the stray bitch she'd taken in. The black mutt whined and lay back down on the porch planks, obviously set against joining Charlotte at the store. "Fine, I'll work the shop on my own today."
She set her bonnet straight and smoothed her dress, knowing full well the heat and dust would render the new yellow frock into nothing more than a dusty rag. But Mother always told her to look her best, no matter how stifling the heat or dirty the streets.
"You stay here and guard the house then," she told Shady. The mutt yawned and closed her eyes.
With a soft chuckle, Charlotte stepped down the footpath leading away from her home. Although the stray dog had the temperament of a lazy old man, Charlotte did enjoy her company.
The morning offered no refuge from the stifling mid-summer Sierra heat. Three months past, she'd left the refreshing air of northern Washington to help run her cousin's emporium in the growing town of Hatchet Creek in California. After her cousin died, Charlotte was left with a store and property she didn't want, but she was raised to see it to the end--no matter what it was, and she was determined to make a life for herself. Spirited women did not give up. Besides, Mother would tan her bottom if she went home with her tail between her legs.
The days were lonely and trying. Running a store and managing a home on the outskirts of town was hard work, especially for a single woman. She was alone in this mountain town. Alone and neglected like poor ol' Shady.
Directly across from Buford's Emporium on the main street was Barrett General store, her competition. Since the day Charlotte arrived, Elizabeth and Reggie Barrett had glared at her like she carried the plague. But she held her chin high, worked her fingers to the bone for the business while taking care of her cousin until she passed away.
If only I knew your intentions, Isabelle. I may not have come here. I could be carefree at home with people who love me.
The hot mountain breeze swept through the pine trees dotting the foothills. Charlotte lifted her face to the sky as she walked, taking in the scent of pine and wild lilac. The place was so beautiful and still largely untamed that it gave her a sense of pride to be a part of it. Though there were days when she wished she could be at home in Washington, the beauty of the mountains and wilderness here could not be described with adequate words.
The snap of a whip echoed in the distance, disrupting her train of thought. With her homestead located half a mile from the town center, she picked up her skirts and rushed down the beaten trail, her curious nature not wanting to miss any action.
As she turned onto the main street of Hatchet Creek, a town settled in a small rocky valley between the mountains, she squinted, trying to get a better view of the scene. Several more cracking sounds ricocheted off the buildings like the pounding of a hammer.
An ever-present cloud of dust swept through the air as the thriving scene before her teemed with people going about their morning errands. Carriages were loaded with supplies from the shops and several ladies were peeking through the window of the emporium, gazing at the objects Charlotte had on display. A couple of drunks brawled in front of The Bleeding Heart Saloon, though she saw no man abusing his horse as she'd first assumed.
Where is that sound coming from?
A group of men loading their wagon a short distance away paused, gazing toward something on the other side of them. Charlotte picked up her skirts and continued on with a little more hitch in her giddy-up. She had a feeling something dreadful was about to happen, knew it like she knew she wasn't welcome here.
Another crack of the whip snapped in the air.
"What's going on, Billy?"
Charlotte confronted Billy Wakeman, one of the young boys sweeping the boardwalk. The boy leaned on the pole-end of the broom, looked yonder and shrugged. "Don't know, ma'am. But I heard Mr. Barrett yellin' at some fella. Prob'ly some thief."
The whip cracked again and this time Charlotte heard the distinct sound of a painful wail. "Oh, my goodness. He's whipping a person!"
Without another word, she left Billy to his chores and headed to the scene.
She pushed her way through the large crowd now forming in the middle of the street. By the time she reached the circle, at least a dozen cracks of the whip had cracked violently through the air. Grumbles accompanied the horrific sound. Anxious faces filled her vision. Some people cheered Mr. Barrett on.
When Charlotte reached the opening of the circle, she gasped in outrage.
Speckles of blood and torn cloth were splayed across the dusty ground. In the middle, lying in a fetal position with his back sliced and bloody, lay Avery Samms, one of the few colored men in Hatchet Creek.
The cruel atmosphere swirled like a bad disease in the hot air. Rage burst inside her. How could they get excited over this? California was a free state, and yet, all these people stood around as if Mr. Barrett had a right to whip Avery.
"Isn't somebody going to stop him?" she cried.
"They say he raped Mrs. Barrett. I ain't stopping 'im," somebody answered. More people agreed, cheering Mr. Barrett on with new vigor.
"Get 'im good!" they shouted.
"Mr. Samms would never hurt anybody!" Horrified by the lack of compassion from the townsfolk, Charlotte stood there, stunned. She thought Avery was respected.
They could say whatever they wanted. It didn't mean he had done anything wrong. She knew Elizabeth Barrett's lying ways. Since moving to this town, Mr. Samms had been nothing but pleasant to her and to everyone else who was fair to him. He was also considered a maverick with a pistol, though little good that did him now. Elizabeth, on the other hand, was foul-mouthed, obnoxious, crude and downright loose.
Charlotte lunged forward without thinking and covered Mr. Samms's body with her own, just as the whip sliced through the air and cracked against her back. The tip curled around her side, biting into her flesh like a striking snake. She stifled a scream as a sting like she'd never felt before slithered fire across her body. Still, she refused to budge.
The crowd hushed.
Someone gasped. "Is she crazy?"
"Musta took leave of 'er bloomin' mind," another grumbled.
"Please," Charlotte pleaded, gazing up at Mr. Barrett whose brows were deeply furrowed, his arm holding the whip extended behind him. For a second, she thought he'd continue his brutal tirade whether she was there or not.
"All right, everybody back away."
A shot cracked in the air and most of the crowd parted. Sheriff Gallagher stepped into view. His shocked gaze landed on Charlotte then darted to Mr. Barrett. "What the hell are you doing, man?" The sheriff yanked the whip out of Barrett's hand.
Barrett spat on the ground by Mr. Samms's face. "This fuckin' nig--"
"Shut yer mouth, boy. No need for that kinda language in front of a lady. Now tell me what authority you have to whip this man."
"He tried to rape my wife."
Sheriff Gallagher gazed from Barrett to Charlotte and then finally Mr. Samms before he erupted in raspy laughter. Charlotte didn't know what to say so she remained right where she was. She didn't trust Mr. Barrett for a second. He had no liking to authority and could very well turn the tables on Sheriff Gallagher in spite.
Barrett clenched his jaw and his fists. "What's so funny?"
"We talkin' 'bout the same wife who got her belly fat with your neighbor's babe while you were out of town? I'd say Avery here was just givin' 'er what she wanted."
Barrett lunged at Gallagher, but the sheriff side-stepped. He whipped out his pistol from its holster with lightning speed and clobbered him on the back of the head. Barrett immediately lost consciousness and collapsed on the dusty ground.
Sheriff Gallagher crouched down beside Charlotte, laying a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "He got you good there, Missy. You all right? Dagnabbit, what you did was mindless. I'm gonna toss Barrett in the hoosegow for a few hours, teach him not to whip a lady."
Charlotte nodded, trying to hold back her tears. Nothing was ever gained from crying. "What about Mr. Samms? He deserves justice. Barrett can't get away with--"
"Now hold on a minute, Missy. I may have a liking for Avery since the fella works at my brother's ranch, but the town will start a war if I take his side. You know how it is with colored folk."
"You got that right," said one of the onlookers. "I say he got what was comin' to 'im."
"If I want your opinion, I'll ask for it. Go on now."
The man said something rude under his breath and stalked off.
Charlotte didn't understand how people could be so cruel, but thankfully Sheriff Gallagher had a good heart and mind.
"Mr. Samms here, he's a good man, fought in the Negro Cavalry and got himself one o' them medals." He looked around the street then back down at Avery. "He's strong and he'll get through this, too, I reckon."
Charlotte was about to ask how well Sheriff Gallagher knew him when Mr. Samms moved beneath her. A painful groan tumbled from his lips and he tried to roll onto his back. Charlotte used every bit of her strength to keep the big man from moving. The last thing he needed was to press his open wounds onto the dirty ground.
"He needs medical attention, Sheriff. Barrett's whip nearly sent him straight to the bone orchard."
"Doc is tending a family north of town." Sheriff Gallagher tugged off his well-worn Stetson and whacked it against his bent knee. He looked frustrated and tired. "Some bitch--pardon my language, ma'am. I don't know where to take him."
Charlotte stared down at Mr. Samms. She brushed her hand over his face, wiped the sand from his dark skin. His lids flickered and he gazed up at her with near-black eyes. She saw something in the dark depths of his gaze, something like pain and resentment.
Her musings didn't last long when his eyes rolled back and he lost consciousness.
"I'll take him to my home," she said suddenly, knowing if a person wanted something done right, they'd best do it themselves. Charlotte pushed herself up, wincing from the pain in her back and side, and swatted the dirt from her dress. "Please have Billy Wakeman and another boy haul him to my home. I will take care of him since nobody else in this town has a heart."
"You can't be serious, Miss Phillips. Why, yer a lone woman and unmarried. What would the town think?"
Charlotte planted her fists on her hips and glared at the sheriff. "What the town thinks is of no concern to me, not after what just happened here." But she knew he was right. An unmarried woman couldn't have a man staying in her house. "Besides, there's a room in the back of my barn where he can stay. Then he can't carry out what people may be thinking."
Sheriff Gallagher stood back up, nodding glumly. "That's mighty kind of you, ma'am. I'll help Billy carry him to yer place. It's the least I can do." He turned and yelled instructions to his deputies. When they grabbed Barrett and hauled him away, he woke from his stupor, and the look he gave her was nothing short of murderous.