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Chapter One

It could have been worse, but not much. When the deputy sheriff not so subtly suggested that Lacey 'get out of town,' he could have given her a ride to the city limits and dumped her in the middle of nowhere. Instead, the rotund man, whose red face even out-shone his red neck, informed her in a loud, gruff voice that echoed above the din of the noisy saloon to be "out of town by first light."

In a miserably small town like Fort Pierre, the odds of her getting a ride either down to the Interstate thirty miles away or all the one-hundred and eighty miles to Rapid City were slim to begin with and nigh onto impossible in the cold, summer rain that had fallen steadily for the past two days. Standing beneath the lone, bare lightbulb outside the Spurs and Saddle Bar, Lacey pulled her leather, bomber jacket tightly around her and hugged her large bag to her stomach.

Lacey peered through the curtain of rain down to the banks of the Missouri River and across the wide span of water at the happily twinkling lights of the state capitol. Regret pierced her heart at the thought of leaving. Though she'd only been in the area a couple of weeks, she'd found the place serene, slow-going and homey-the kind of place in which she hoped to find a permanent home, the final stop on her endless journey.

"God, why do You tempt me so dearly." Lacey lifted her face to the sky, the drops of rain mixing freely with the tears that forced themselves from her eyes. "I really thought I'd found my place this time. I guess it's just not meant to be. Can't blame you. I shot myself in the foot this time. I just keep hoping that You'll answer my prayer soon. In case You've forgotten the million or so times I've prayed, here's a hint. I want a place where I belong, where I can be something more than just another drifter."

As the door of the saloon swung widely open, it slammed roughly against Lacey. Rubbing her arm, she stepped away and looked at the cowboy who'd staggered out.

"Hey there, little lady," he slurred. A wash of stale smoke and rancid beer from the saloon flooded over her, fouling the pristine clarity of the freshly washed air she'd been enjoying. Instinctively, Lacey's nose wrinkled against the assault. "Sure is too bad ol' Cleavis in there had to roust you out. I just knew my luck was going to turn if we'd had the chance to finish that card game."

"Cleavis-that's the cop's name? Figures," Lacey grunted. "Obviously the result of twins marrying and having kids."

The cowboy laughed and elbowed Lacey in the arm. She rubbed her arm and moved slightly further away from him. She looked at him from the corners of her eyes. Not bad looking. Big straw cowboy hat cocked back on his head. Beneath the hat was a tangled mop of sandy-colored hair. She watched as he tapped out an unfiltered Camel from a crushed pack and flipped it into his mouth. As he spun the Zippo lighter against the knee of his jeans, he propped one boot against the building and lit the cigarette. As the flame brightened, Lacey noticed the double dose of freckles sprinkled across his long nose and gaunt cheeks, bright against his darkly tanned, leathery skin. When he looked at her, she noted for the first time how unusual his eyes were-more light gold than light brown, with tiny flecks of emerald.

"Those things'll kill you," Lacey suggested. If the lung cancer didn't get him, the melanoma from too much exposure to the sun would.

"Little lady, I probably ain't gonna live long enough for that. I believe in ridin' hard, livin' harder and leaving scores of mournin' women behind me," he chuckled. Lacey grimaced at the 'little lady' reference. One more and the cowboy would find out that this 'little lady' packed a fierce wallop. "So, where you headed now?"

"I suppose I'll try to hitchhike down to the Interstate and head west. I've tried east. Nothing there for me," Lacey sighed. Her gaze returned to the river. She noticed tendrils of fog reaching out from the water, swirling around lampposts and fire hydrants as it worked its way up the block toward the saloon. It possessed almost a luminous glow as it billowed and receded, only to rise further and further along the street. "Too bad the cops here aren't like the others. When you get kicked out of other towns, usually they hand you a bus ticket that's just enough to get you out of their jurisdiction. It's at least a start. If that local yokel hadn't confiscated every last cent I had as a fine, I could've bought a ticket."

"Yeah, ol' Cleavis ain't too kind to gamblers. Hell, he must've took at least three-four hundred off you in there."

"Try closer to five, cowboy," Lacey admitted. The pain of the loss rubbed like salt in an open wound. She'd gotten too greedy. Those hicks infected her with their greed as they lined up to play three-card monte with her. As the pile of money thickened between her fingers, she could almost visualize the nice little place she might rent with the money. It would have given her a chance to find a job, settle down. Then, ol' Cleavis showed up and shattered the dream. "At least you got your money back. You're not out anything."

"You're wrong about that, darlin'," he said, leaning close to her. "That fistful of twenties went straight into Cleavis' boat fund. He's got his eye on a thirty-foot cruiser."

"But…but that's…corrupt! Why didn't you demand your money back from him?"

"'Cause it's just as illegal to lose money gamblin' as it is to win it. And I have to plant this butt on top of a horse in the morning. Don't reckon my boss would care too much to have come bail it out of jail," he laughed. "Though if I had my druthers-I'd take working the fine off in jail as to have Dougie bail me out. I seen what the boss man does to them that displeases him. Ain't a pretty sight."

"Your loss then, bucko," Lacey grunted. The rain had tapered off while the mists had grown. It made no sense to prolong the inevitable, she decided. Might as well start walking now and hope that the fog didn't become too thick. As dangerous as it was to hitchhike, it was even more dangerous to walk along a highway in dense fog, and the ditches would be flooded from all the rain. "Been nice meeting you, but I better take off before Cleavis comes out and finds me here. Take care."

Lacey pushed away from the building and started walking down the cracked and broken sidewalk. She's only managed a few steps before the cowboy's hand shot out and stopped her. Roughly, she pulled her arm from his grasp and spun to face him.

"Easy there, darlin'," he said quickly, raising his hands before him. "I was just going to ask you if wanted a lift as far as Philip. That's better than halfway to Rapid. Night's still young, and I ain't ready to head back to the ranch yet. Just thought I'd show you that not all of us here are as inhospitable as ol' Cleavis."

Lacey looked at him closely. He didn't look dangerous. He appeared more anxious for some company. She tried to remember how much she'd seen him drink. There'd been so many men huddled around her table, it was difficult to remember, though usually she liked to keep track. The more they drank, the freer they were with their wagers. Yet, the last thing she wanted on this miserable night was to get into a vehicle with a drunk.

"I don't want to take you out of your way. Thanks just the same." She held her bag closer.

"Ain't out of my way, at all, miss," he assured her, his crooked grin spreading wider on his handsome face. "Gotta drive out that way to get home anyway."

"Don't get me wrong, cowboy, I appreciate the offer, but what's in it for you? I can't pay you…you know that cop took all my money," she asked. She'd learned the hard way to look beyond the innocence of offers at the real motivations behind them.

"Just the pleasure of a young lady's company on a chilled, rainy night. That's payment enough for me. Gets pretty lonesome out on the prairie tending a dumb herd who don't know more than one note. A little conversation'll keep me company when I'm ridin' drag behind a herd of obstinate cows." His smile seemed sincere, yet she wondered how much of the charm was natural and how much was Michelob beer.

"You sure you can drive, cowboy? Just how much did you have to drink in there?"

"Hell, little lady, I'm a better driver with a couple under my belt than I am without. Relaxes me, that's all," he assured her, again risking to take her arm and pull her gently along with him. Reluctantly, Lacey allowed herself to be ushered to a battered pickup parked at the curb. She looked at all the rusting dents and shook her head. A ride was a ride, but it looked like this pickup had seen more than its share of accidents.

"Did you relax yourself into rolling your pickup a few times?" she asked, as he opened the passenger's door for her.

"Hell no. That comes from taking it out on the range and bumpin' cattle."

"Bumpin' cattle?"

"Yeah, sometimes they get ornery, so you gotta bump 'em a little bit to herd them where you want them to go. Sometimes they don't take too nicely to being bumped, so they sort of charge the pickup," he chuckled, before pointing to a deep dent in the fender. "That there dent came from Dougie's prize bull. Knocked himself cold when he rammed it. 'Course, that time it weren't so much herdin' as it was sport."

Perhaps she should invest one of the few quarters that rumbled around in the bottom of her bag and alert that organization that protects animals, she thought, hesitantly entering the pickup. She doubted they would consider 'bumping' cows either sport or humane. She'd spent many hours at the library, a universal and welcome home she'd found in most cities she'd visited, researching the area, but hadn't come across any references to that. As the mist attempted to invade the cab of the pickup, she shuddered, missing the comfort of aisles and aisles of books. Libraries had always been her sanctuaries. She'd give anything to be cozily curled up with a book right now at that library instead of buckling herself into a pickup she doubted would make the city limits.

Lacey watched as the cowboy jogged around the front of the pickup and vaulted into the driver's seat. "Sure is weird weather we're havin' tonight," he said, pulling his seat belt buckle from under him and tossing it aside. "Suppose I should introduce myself. Name's Jim."

He cranked the key in the ignition. The pickup's engine grunted, groaned, wheezed and then fired loudly. Impatiently, Jim pumped the gas pedal. The engine roared loudly, sputtering its protests.

"My name's Lacey-Lacey Beaumont. Ever hear of a gadget called a muffler?" she shouted, hoping he could hear her over the engine.

"Lost the damned muffler out in some pasture. Never did go back and look for it." He grinned at her. "Don't worry she settles down once we get on the road."

She watched as he pawed through the dusty piles of tape cassettes before he finally selected one and slammed it into the player in the dashboard. "A little mood music," he shouted, jacking up the volume. Garth Brooks crooned about thunder rolling as Jim placed the pickup in reverse and backed away from the curb.

Lacey sighed and settled back into the seat, looking through the rain-streaked window. Good, loud music and a louder truck should negate the need for any conversation. It wasn't that she was shy or the quiet type. Normally, she loved a good conversation about anything or nothing. Her disappointment about being forced from town combined with her anger over losing her earnings grated incessantly. She told herself to quit obsessing about it. She was used to disappointment. But, that didn't lessen the sting at all.

Jim began singing along with Garth in an off-key, tinny voice. Lacey glanced at him. Garth would probably retire his Stetson and boots in disgrace if he heard the miserable duet. She turned back to the window. Focus. Focus, she told herself. Think about the future, about discovering a new place. But that depressed her even more. She was so tired of searching, so tired of having her hopes raised only to have them dashed.

She thought again about the beautiful parks that stretched along both sides of the Missouri River, the beautiful and unblemished LaFramboise Island in its center. Walking the island was like stepping back in history. It was undeveloped except for the walkway that curled around its shores. Wild turkeys and deer darted among the thick stands of cottonwoods, oaks and elms while the air was filled with many kinds of birds. Yet a quick two-block stroll along the causeway that connected the island to the mainland brought her right back into the city.

Lost in the wonderful memory of her hours spent there, Lacey almost didn't notice when Jim careened off the highway onto a broad, gravel road. Wet gravel spun from the rear tires as Jim momentarily fought to control the pickup's course.

"Hey, bucko. This isn't the highway to the Philip. I don't need a map to know that gravel roads don't lead anywhere but out in the sticks," Lacey said, feeling her fear break out in tiny beads of sweat. "Why don't you let me out here?"

"Relax, darlin'." Jim smiled, tossing his arm along the back of the seat. "More than one way down there. We're takin' the shortcut. This is the Willow Creek road…as bad a road as you're like to ever drive, but it gets ya where your goin'…as long as you're goin' to Philip."

Lacey didn't know which she feared more-the way Jim was steering one-handed on a slippery wet, gravel road or the way she could feel his fingers brushing lightly against the ends of her hair. She didn't care for either.

"Look, Jim, it's getting foggier and this road is bumpier than a washboard. Wouldn't it be more comfortable if we went back and took the highway?"

"This here is a historic road, Lacey. Showin' ya a bit of history here. This used to be the trail for the stage line between Fort Pierre and Deadwood." Lacey felt Jim's fingers brush her hair away from her neck. Instinctively, she huddled closer to the door. "Ranch I work for is just down the road a piece. Got my own trailer house. Boss thinks highly of me, ya know. Wanna stop and knock back a couple 'fore we head to Philip?"

"I've seen more trailer houses than I care to remember," she grunted, feeling for the buckle of her seat belt. She began to relax when Jim lifted his arm from the back of the seat and start fumbling under the seat. He pulled out a pint bottle. Resting his forearms on the wildly spinning steering wheel, he screwed off the cap and held the bottle over toward Lacey.

"Cold tonight. Why don't you try warmin' up a little, baby?" He urged the bottle at her. Grab the bottle, an inner voice cried to her in alarm. Grab the bottle and toss it out the window. But, Lacey froze. She couldn't move. She watched Jim shrug and tip the bottle into his mouth. It was almost fascinating to watch his stubbled Adam's apple bob up and down, up and down as he emptied the bottle.

As he rolled down his window far enough to toss the bottle out, Lacey squeezed her eyes shut tight. Lord, she silently prayed, I know I've been asking for a lot lately, but I'd really like to make it out of this pickup alive. A gust of whiskey-scented breath washed over her as she felt his hand on the back of her neck.

"Darlin', why don't you loosen up that belt and slide a little closer to me," he suggested, his voice rough and husky. He tugged on her neck. She pulled away from him and opened her eyes.

"Jim, why don't you just concentrate on trying to drive? It's lots more fun to get where we're going in one piece, you know." Lacey forced herself to smile at him. Her gaze flicked from him to the curving road that lay ahead. A completely sober man would have trouble negotiating the turns on this road and in this weather. The fog was thickening. It seemed to be following them.

"A piece. Ya, I'd like a piece of what you got hidin' under there," he replied, plucking at her jacket. Defensively, Lacey hugged her bag closer to her chest while attempting to move farther away from him. She was pressed tightly against the door. "Ah, don't act like that, sugar. I'll make it fun for you. You ain't never had a ride like I can give you."

"Jim, you're a nice guy, I'm sure," she lied. "But, I'm not interested in that kind of a 'ride'-from you or anyone. So, why don't you just slow down, pull over and let me out. I think I'd rather walk."

Lacey watched the friendly, slightly inebriated cowboy transform into an angry, belligerent drunk. From the dim illumination of the dashboard lights, Lacey could see his face reddened under his tan. His eyes flashed darkly as he shifted his gaze from the road to her. They resembled some mad animal's eyes-yellow and evil.

In her years alone on the road and trying to survive the dozen or more foster homes and group homes of her youth, Lacey had faced evil in many forms, many guises. Yet, until this moment, she'd never felt such a gut-wrenching fear as she experienced looking at Jim's angry eyes.

"Look, you little bitch. You cost me nearly sixty bucks back there playin' that little con game of yours. I figure you owe me. I ain't never paid no whore that much. So I figure you'd best give me a better time than any of them ever did. Now you got your choice. You can come willingly to my trailer or we can just pull off on an approach and do it here."

"Get your damned hand off me," she demanded, fumbling for the seat belt buckle beneath her bag. "I'll die before I let you put your filthy hands on me."

Jim pulled his hand back and started laughing. "Honey, I don't need to lay a finger on you to get you to spread those long legs of yours for me."

Silently, she unbuckled her belt while she watched him reach under the seat again. Quickly, she reached up and quietly unlatched the handle just a bit-prepared to jump from the speeding pickup if necessary. She expected him to pull out another bottle. Instead, the dashboard lights glinted off the chrome barrel of a rather nasty gun. It wasn't nasty because it was big. It was hardly as big as her hand. It wasn't nasty because it looked all that powerful, though she believed it could do a lot of damage. It was just that in all her experiences she'd never looked down the business end of a gun.

"I can see you're finally starting to warm up to me," Jim chuckled hoarsely, glancing at the road. "So how about you come over here and cozy up to me nice and proper like?"

"This how you like your women, Jim? Scared stiff?" She licked her suddenly dry lips, obeying his command. "'Cause I'm not going to lie to you. I'm scared to death here. Not very conducive to romance. Doubt I'm going to have much fun if I'm going to be forced to have sex with you with a gun pointed at me."

"Sugar, I don't give a rat's ass if you have a good time or not. It's me havin' a good time you'd best be worryin' about." He threw his free arm around her and ran the steely cold barrel of the gun down her cheek.

Her virtue or her life? That was the question Lacey faced. Didn't take but a nanosecond to make that choice. She could always wash the filth of him off her body. She'd trust in God to help her wipe it out of her soul. But, dead wasn't an option she was quite up to dealing with at the moment.

She opened her mouth to plead, but her words were swept away as the pickup lurched into a deep puddle of water running across the road. The rear of the pickup fishtailed wildly.

"Shit," Jim cursed, dropping the gun and grabbing the gyrating steering wheel with both hands. Lacey looked down at the gun in her lap. Quickly, she stuffed it into her purse while Jim fought to keep the pickup on the road. He slammed hard on the brakes causing the truck to spin around and around down the road.

Lacey took her chance. She threw herself across the seat of the pickup against the door. The door flew open and Lacey tumbled from the pickup into the muddy gravel of the road. For a brief second, she saw the rear of the pickup swing dangerously at her, but as she continued to roll down into the watery ditch it continued on its path away from her.

Ignoring the pain that shot through every joint and muscle in her body, Lacey scrambled into the trees on the other side of the ditch, away from the road. She took a jagged breath as she plunged into the thick trees and dense fog that lay ahead of her. The thick undergrowth tore at her ankles and feet as she attempted to get as far from the road as she could. It was impossibly dark, the fog so thick she could only see a few feet in any direction. Yet, she plunged on into the unknown. Whatever lay ahead was far preferable to what lay behind her.

The branches and roots soon gave way to a sucking mud that clung to Lacey's sneakers. She cursed the mud for slowing her progress. Finally, the effects of the jump from the pickup and her flight from Jim took its toll. Lacey leaned against a tree to catch her breath. She pulled the constricting handle of her bag away from her throat. A sharp stab of pain shot into her chest as she tried to inhale deeply. She grimaced at the pain, unwilling to give it voice. Probably broken ribs, she considered. Even with broken ribs, she figured she'd gotten off lightly for her foolish decision to accept a ride from that creep.

She pushed away from the tree and took a step. Even as she put her weight on her leading foot, she felt the earth beneath give way. Down she tumbled again. Down and down. Over and over. Until at last, she came to rest against the sandy beach of a river. The water rushed past her, swollen by the early torrential summer rains. It roared in her ears.

Slowly, she rolled away from the brink of the river and huddled amid the exposed roots of a huge tree. Lacey pushed back her long, wet bangs. She'd never felt more alone. She'd never hurt so bad, not even from the countless beatings she'd suffered in foster care.

He couldn't find her here. Wouldn't find her here. She willed it with all her might. She would just stay here for the rest of the night and rest a bit. Then, she'd be on her way. But where? Where would she go from here? The tears started flowing then. Lacey made no attempt to staunch them. After all she'd been through, she was entitled to a good cry, she justified to herself. It wasn't as if anyone would see her. She always refused to allow anyone to see that. If anyone saw her tears, they'd understand she was vulnerable. The thought that anyone would consider her the least bit vulnerable sickened her. Only the tough survived. Only the tough were respected. She'd learned the lesson early; used it as her shield.

Yet, a tiny part of her heart longed for a protector, someone to love her and shelter her from the world. She yearned for someone to love her for herself. Not for the welfare check paid for her keep. Not for the diversions she could provide to protect other con artists plying their trade. Just for her.

Then, she looked around at the mists and the mud. No, no one would ever do that for her. She knew little of her beginnings other than the date she was born twenty-five years earlier. It was on a Thursday-shortly after midnight, and the old rhyme repeated endlessly by one of the old ladies haunted her. "Wednesday's child is full of woe; Thursday's child has far to go." The old woman who would sit on the stoop and endlessly chant rhymes had told her she was both. The longer she lived, the truer the woman's ominous proclamation became.

"God, just how much farther do I have to go before You give me a break? What did I ever do to deserve this?" she prayed, disheartened. "I can't take this anymore, God. I just can't take it. I need a sign, God. I don't mean to be demanding, but please give me a sign that it's worth going on. If not, please…just take me now.

"Just take me now," she wept, as she snapped her jacket shut to the neck and curled into a painful ball. With luck, sleep would ease the pains in her body and the dull ache in her heart.

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