Author Elizabeth Lane
"The Ballad of Emma O'Toole"
by Elizabeth Lane
Excerpt from "The Ballad of Emma O'Toole"
Park City, Utah Territory, April 1886
“Emma, wake up! Billy John’s been shot!”
The pounding on the lean-to at the back of the boarding house jarred Emma O’Toole awake. She jerked upright in the darkness, her heart slamming.
“Open the door!” She recognized the voice now. It was one of the miners who bunked upstairs and took his meals in the dining room where she worked. Scrambling off her thin straw mattress she lifted the latch with shaking fingers. A blast of wind swept into the tiny space, almost ripping the door from her hand.
“You got to come now. He’s hit bad, askin’ for you.”
Emma was already jamming her bare feet into boots and reaching for a shawl to fling over her flannel nightgown. This had to be some kind of awful mistake. How could anything bad happen to Billy John Carter, the only boy who’d ever loved her?
“Where is he?” she managed to ask.
“Crystal Queen Saloon. Some slick gambler done it. Bastard claimed Billy John was cheatin’ at cards. Hurry!”
She followed him, bracing into the wind as she stumbled through ruts where the lumbering ore wagons had passed. From the sprawl of Chinese huts in the gulch below, the rising odors of cabbage, soy vinegar and incense mingled in a sour stench that touched off ripples of nausea in her stomach.
Just that morning, she’d told Billy John she was with child. Kissing her, he’d promised to marry her the next day and make a home for her and their baby. Pretty words, but she’d seen the flash of desperation in his pale eyes. Supporting a wife and child would take money. And apart from the small pouch of silver he’d scratched out of his mountainside claim, Billy John scarcely had a cent to his name.
That would explain the card game. But when it came to gambling, Billy John was no better than a lamb asking to be fleeced. What an innocent! When she found him, she was going to give him such a piece of her mind...”
Emma stumbled to her knees as cold reality struck home. The father of her unborn child could be dying. By now, he could even be dead.
The miner helped her stand. Looking ahead, she saw that they’d reached the upper end of Main Street. Even at this late hour, the saloons were teeming. With the discovery of silver in the hills above Park City, gamblers and shysters had come flocking like buzzards to a dead mule. Night and day they plied their sleazy trade, robbing honest men of their hard-earned treasure. And now one of them had shot her darling Billy John.
The Crystal Queen – a dingy gambling den, far less grand than its name – was in the second block. People swarmed around the door, craning their necks to see inside. Someone spotted Emma. A shout went up. “It’s his girl, Emma O’Toole! Let her through!”
She stumbled forward as the crowd gave way. In the smoky lamplight, she could make out something – no, someone – sprawled on the floor beneath a rumpled blanket. Long, thin legs. Worn, mud-caked boots. It could only be Billy John.
He lay white and still beneath the blanket, a rolled leather coat supporting his head. She hesitated, suddenly afraid. What if she’d come too late?
“He’s alive.” The low voice, a stranger’s, spoke from somewhere beyond her vision. “He waited for you. Go to him.”
Billy John’s eyelids fluttered open. His gray lips moved, shaping her name. She pressed his cold, limp hands to her cheeks.
“You dear, crazy fool!” she murmured. “What did you think you were doing? Don’t you know we could have managed somehow, as long as we had each other?”
“Too late...” He coughed weakly. “You can have my share of the claim. You and the baby. These folks here will witness to it.”
“No! It’s not supposed to be this way! We had our whole lives ahead of us, and now – ”
“Promise me somethin’, Em.” His fingers gripped her hand, their sudden strength hurting her.
“Anything,” she whispered, half-blinded by tears.
“The gambler...the bastard who shot me...See that the no-account pays for what he done.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I’ll see to it somehow. Oh, Billy John, don’t die! You can’t – ”
“Promise me!” His eyes were like smoldering coals. “Swear it on your mother’s grave - ” He’d started coughing again.
“I swear it...on my mother’s grave!” Emma battled the urge to throw back her head and scream her anguish into the smoke-filled room.
“Em...” The coughing had left him even weaker. She could feel him going slack against her. “Em, I’m so cold...”
“No!” She flung her arms around him, binding him to her. But she couldn’t hold his spirit. Even as she pressed him close, she felt it quiver and rise, leaving his young body lifeless in her embrace. Her head dropped to his chest, ears straining for the sound of his heart. But he was gone.
Slowly Emma became aware that the room was full of people. She felt their curious eyes on her, and she knew that she had no friends in this place. Somehow she would have to get to her feet and walk out the door. But first she had a promise to keep.
Slowly she sat up. Her eyes found the marshal, a big, ruddy man she’d often seen in town.
“Are you all right, girl?” the marshal asked her.
Emma shook her head. Lifting the edge of the blanket, she tugged it over Billy John’s face to protect him from staring eyes. Then she turned on the crowd in sudden ferocity.
“Who did this?” she demanded. “Where’s the man who shot him?”
“Here.” The voice was the one she’d heard earlier. It came from directly behind her, its tone soft but harsh, like velvet-cloaked flint.
Slowly she turned, forcing her gaze to travel upward, over the expensive calfskin boots and along the length of lean, muscular legs encased in fawn-colored merino trousers. Her eyes skimmed the masculine bulge at their apex, then darted to the polished belt and fine woolen vest. The clothes alone were probably worth enough to feed a poor family for a season. But the details of the gambler’s costume evaporated as Emma looked up to meet a pair of eyes as black as the infernal pit. His face was dark, rugged and, except for a faint, slanting scar across his left cheek, so handsome that he might have acquired it in exchange for his soul.
He stood coatless, his arms pinioned behind him, his cravat askew and his white shirt speckled with blood. His eyes were laced with red, his black hair mussed and tumbled. He looked, Emma thought, as if he were standing on the brink of hell, about to be shoved into the flames.
“I shot your young man.” His voice was drained of emotion. “My name is Logan Devereaux. The last thing I wanted was to kill the boy. I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry?” She flung the words at him. “Billy John Carter was only nineteen years old! He never harmed a soul in his life! We were going to be married tomorrow. That’s the only reason he was here at all, to get money for us. Now he’s dead – and you’re sorry! You can go to hell and burn there, Mr. Devereaux!”
She stumbled to her feet, ready to fling herself on the stranger and do as much damage as possible before the crowd could drag her off; but the emptiness in his eyes stopped her like a wall. It was as if he was indifferent to any punishment she might inflict on him – as if she could set out to kill him, and he wouldn’t care.
She would have to find another way to hurt him.
She drew back into herself, gathering her strength. Then, abruptly, she wheeled toward the marshal. “Take this man away! Lock him up in your stoutest cell and, no matter what he tells you, don’t let him out!”
The marshal raised a shaggy eyebrow; then, with a shrug that implied he’d had the same idea all along, he unfastened the handcuffs from his belt and clicked them around the indifferent wrists of Logan Devereaux.
Only when he’d finished did Emma turn back to face the man who’d murdered Billy John. His bloodshot eyes met hers, mirroring Emma’s own helpless rage. His mouth twitched as he swallowed, then spoke in a hoarse whisper.
“You must believe me, Emma O’Toole. I never meant to – ”
“No!” she snapped, determined that his words would not move her. “It was a foul and brutal thing you did, Mr. Devereaux! Whatever it takes, so help me, I won’t rest until I see you hang!”