J.D. Holt wasn’t at all what he seemed when he tackled Sister Mary Francis in the vegetable garden of her ramshackle convent near Deadwood in the Dakota Territories. But he needed a safe place to hide and recover and a convent seemed better than most.
Especially if all of the other sisters looked like this one.
Sister Mary Francis was sure he was an outlaw, a claim jumper or both, especially since he seemed to be all too ready to use that business end of that knife to get what he wanted, and the flat of his hand on her bottom if that was quicker. And when things blossomed between them, despite her reservations and his secretiveness, his wasn’t the only blood that was going to be spilled.
Outside of Deadwood, Dakota Territory
Late spring, 1882
She never saw him coming. One moment she was bent over, aggressively yanking yet another bunch of stubborn pigweed, when the rip of gunfire rent the air. Her breath left her in a gasp, and before she could draw in another to fill her lungs, something large and heavy tackled her to the ground. Her head struck a particularly hard clump of dirt, sun–baked to nearly the firmness of rock, and she yelped. A large, dirty hand clamped over her throat, restricting not only her ability to call for help, but to breathe at all. She blinked; her eyes widened with fear as she stared at her attacker.
His eyes were blue, startlingly so, as clear and bright as the late summer sky above him. His face was darkly tanned and grimy, his hair disheveled, and the ubiquitous hat that the men in Dakota Territory all seemed to wear, was missing.
“Where are the others?” he demanded, his husky voice pitched low enough that only she could hear.
She gulped, growing dizzy for lack of air, and felt cold steel press against her throat. The tip of the knife nicked her tender flesh. Still, fear drove her to try to respond, so she mouthed an answer for him.
With obvious reluctance, he eased up the pressure on her throat just enough so she could draw in a breath of air and then another, coughing from the pain that simple action caused. He hissed at her for silence, his lips so close to her ear that the stubble of whiskers caught in a wisp of hair that had pulled free from her white cambric veil. The Reverend Mother would surely scold her for that, if she were well enough.
“The others!” he growled.
How should she answer? If she told him there were dozens of nuns inside the crumbling convent, would he believe her? It certainly wouldn’t intimidate him in the least, not this big bear of a man armed as he was against the Brides of Christ who had promised to turn the other cheek.
“There are no others,” she said, not recognizing her own voice, before he ruthlessly cut her off. She prayed he couldn’t somehow detect the small white lie. There weren’t any other sisters, though. Just the Reverend Mother and she was of no threat to him whatsoever.
His expression darkened, and she would have bet seconds before that wasn’t possible. Could he have known of the old woman’s existence? It was doubtful, but just as she opened her mouth to confess her sin, the tip of the knife poked even further into her neck, and she suspected she would have a scar there for whatever remained of her life.
She flinched, as much from his angry tone as from the coarseness of his language.
“This is a convent, isn’t it? Where are all the other nuns?”
There was not a quick or easy answer to his question, nor could she bring herself to place her beloved Mother Agnes in danger, yet how long would it be before Father Michael returned to hear her confession if she lied? She was ignorant of the world, having grown up in the convent.
She gazed at him stupidly, unaware that her expression, or the way her eyes glanced quickly toward Reverend Mother’s bedroom window on the second floor, gave her away. Then he shifted, nearly cutting off her breath again as his bulk sandwiched her to the cold, hard ground. His broad shoulders blocked the noonday sun completely, casting her in his shadow. She was about to blurt her confession and beg for mercy, when a droplet of something warm and sticky fell on her face, drawing her attention to the large, dark stain on his upper left sleeve.
“You’ve been shot!” She couldn’t keep the abject horror out of her tone.
“And I aim to avoid being shot again, if I can help it, Sister. Get up!” He shifted, suddenly lifting that terrific weight from her chest. She thought to take a moment to fill her lungs with great gulps of air, but he grabbed her wrists and yanked her to her feet. He didn’t stand fully erect, but scooted in a half–crouch from brush to bush, to the garden gate made from sapling trunks lashed together, to the corner of the convent wall. His grip on her wrist was brutal. Tears filled her vision, causing her to stumble, which in turn elicited yet another curse from the outlaw – for outlaw he must surely be. Who else would be running for his life, bleeding and wounded, and attack a poor novice in a convent?
Her lips moved in silent prayer. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace, The Lord is with thee…”
“Hush,” he barked, giving her arm a yank that nearly pulled it from the socket.
The prayer continued, but now not even her lips moved. God would hear her pleas. He might not save her from harm, but He would be with her at the hour of her death. Amen.
The outlaw pushed her up against the wall of the once bustling convent, his knife making a reappearance as though he thought he needed it to gain her assistance. “How many entrances and exits,” he whispered hurriedly, his eyes darting about scanning the landscape in every direction.
“Just two,” she whispered, pointing to the back door. “And the front door around the other side.”
“Of course,” she said, more confused than scared at the moment. Who built a house without windows? But then, non–Catholics often had very strange ideas about Catholics.
“How many! How big! How defensible is this place?”
“There are many windows,” she said stiffly. “And they are big enough to let in lots of sunlight. Convents are not built to be defended, for we are taught to love our enemies. Sir!”
That drew a chuckle from the outlaw. At least, she thought it might have been a chuckle. His face was filthy, and his lips were taut with what she had first thought was anger but now suspected might be the pain his wound caused him. But for a moment, the corners of his lips quirked upward and a deep rumble sounded in his chest. It was but a flash, and then it was gone.
“So you’re not afraid of me?” he asked, pressing the full length of his body up against hers. Even through the thick wool of her black robe, she could feel the firmness of his thigh, the ridge of his belt buckle. His scent invaded her, an odd mix of sweat, soap, and something she couldn’t define but would always think of as the scent of outlaw.
“You terrify me, sir. I may be ignorant, but I’m not stupid.”
“And you live here all alone in this great big building all by yourself?”
His tone indicated that he didn’t believe her. She lowered her eyes; embarrassment flushed her cheeks and made her stutter. “W–w–well…”
The knife pressed hard against her soft neck. His lips were right next to her ear again, the whiskers scratching her tender skin. “Tell me exactly how many and where they are!”
“Just Mother Superior, Sir.”
“So you lied to me back there.”
“Not exactly,” she stammered, clenching her eyes shut at his angry scowl. “You didn’t give me a chance to give you a complete report. There were twelve here much of the time, as I was growing up. Sister Mary Margaret, Sister Brigit, Sister Anne, Sister –.”
“And where are they now?” he interrupted.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” she answered impatiently. “Several were transferred to another convent. Some went to California to minister to the needs there. We had an outbreak of influenza, which claimed the lives of Sisters Gertrude and Agatha. But it has been many months since we last had mail, that I couldn’t tell you where they are right now.”
“You’re a saucy wench, for a nun,” he grunted.
It was a lie of omission that she didn’t correct him. She was only a novice; she had not yet taken the sacred vows that would forever bind her to the church. She wanted to – she knew in her heart that she was ready! But Mother Agnes disagreed, and no one argued with the Reverend Mother.
“Mother Superior. Where is she?”
“Oh, please don’t hurt her! Take me instead. Do what you will with me, but please leave her alone! She’s just a poor old woman, she’s in very poor health!”
With a furtive glance at the tree line, he tugged her towards the back door. “Can’t you just shut up and do what you’re told?” he barked.
It was undoubtedly a rhetorical question, but it made a nervous giggle erupt from her throat. “No, sir. Mother Agnes often calls me her ‘cross to bear’.”
They made it up the back stairs unseen, apparently, since they heard no stray gunshots. He closed the door behind them.
“Where’s the lock?”
“There isn’t any.”
He looked at her, utterly dumbfounded. “No locks?”
She shook her head. “We have no need to keep people in. The Sisters of Mercy are not cloistered, but minister to the needs of the community. We provided health care and education, before the drought came and most of the settlers moved away.”
He had already begun to wander through the first floor during her explanation, his head swerving back and forth almost as violently as he was weaving, until his eyes fell on the big highboy that was one of the few nice pieces that remained downstairs.
“Help me,” he said as he struggled to shove it across the floorboards.
His tone of voice revealed just how reluctant he was to ask for her assistance, but he was obviously putting practicality before his masculine pride. She was small, and not very strong by comparison, but she’d been doing everything that needed to be done all by herself for nearly a year now. Her muscles were firm and hard, for a woman, and she wasn’t above using her brain, either. She stopped him, then showed him the wheeled dolly she used to bring in the loads of firewood. Between the two of them and the dolly, the highboy was wedged in front of the door, locking her inside as well as keeping others out. Immediately, he insisted she help him barricade the front door as well. He was staggering by then, his sleeve dark with blood.
“Sit,” she insisted, indicating a ladder back chair in the kitchen.
He scowled. It was obvious that he was unused to being given orders.
“You’re making a mess all over the floor,” she said. “No doubt you’ve dripped blood all the way from the garden, and left a trail wide enough a blind man could follow.”
“What do you know about doctoring?” he grumbled.
“More than you, I expect. Now sit down and let me tend to your wound.”
He sat. A look of relief cleared his face, making him appear almost handsome. But then the wariness returned, and with it, the knife. He clenched it in his right hand, blade out, threateningly. “Watch yourself,” he said darkly.
Mary Francis poured hot water from the pot on the back of the stove into a basin. She gathered soap, bandages, laudanum and some herbs, placing everything on the table. Clumsily, she worked at the buttons on his shirt, for he made no effort to do it himself.
Sister Brigit had been the healer and herbalist. She knew which herbs healed infection or reduced fever. She knew how to sew up cuts, treat for congestion, and deliver babies. Mary Francis had spent many hours by her side, learning as much as she could, for Brigit had also been blessed with a calm and cheerful spirit, and an overabundance of patience that the other sisters had lacked. She missed her more than all the others together, except for the Reverend Mother, who had not left in body, but in mind.
Still, Mary Francis had never undressed a patient before, nor had she ever had to treat one who held a knife.
He snarled something incomprehensible, then shrugged out of his dirty, stained shirt, wincing in pain. His shirt was ruined, but there was a closet full of gently–used clothes in the back. Twice a year a missionary barrel arrived from the east, filled with clothing, school books, medicines, and other donations that kept the little convent afloat. She would see about finding him something suitable, as soon as possible.
The hard planes of his chest were very distracting. His well–defined muscles drew her attention, causing a blush to creep up her neck. His little male nipples were dark, covered with a light dusting of black hair. She had the strangest urge to touch him, which she refrained from doing only with the utmost concentration. She dipped a clean rag in the warm water and gently dabbed at his injured shoulder.
The wound went clear through, smaller in the back and slightly larger in front, indicating that his pursuers had shot him in the back. At least she would not have to dig out the bullet. She’d seen Sister Brigit do that once, and had promptly thrown up all over the floor. Brigit wouldn’t let her help her for three days, saying she must develop a stiffer constitution if she ever wished to become a healer herself.
The wound was dirty. If she didn’t get it thoroughly cleaned, infection would set in. Maybe it would even kill him. She bit her lower lip, considering her options. Let him die, and protect herself and her Reverend Mother… or treat his injuries, and pray that he left her unscathed out of gratefulness. But he was here. God could have made him run in another direction. He might have run into Deadwood, nearly a ghost town after the devastating fire back in ’79. Or he could have headed towards the mining camp, and the miners would have finished him off, for sure. Instead he was here, at the nearly abandoned convent with but one novice and an ailing Reverend Mother. And the novice knew how to treat wounds. No, God’s hand was in this, she was sure. And God loved the outlaw just as surely as he loved all sinners. She applied more soap to the wound and scrubbed a little more vigorously.
“Jesus, woman! That hurts!” he belted.
She planted her hands on her hips and glowered at him. “If you want to die from infection, just keep it up. I will not tend you if you take the Lord’s name in vain again.” He chuckled again, annoyed with her. “I’m glad you find this funny,” she said. “I could give you some laudanum for the pain.”
“No! Don’t you dare!”
“It would be easier to cleanse your wound.”
“I’ve seen too many men reduced to idiots from drug addictions. I need my wits about me. Do what you must. I’ll not swear at you again.”
He was true to his word. Mary Francis worked diligently on his shoulder, then packed the wound with a crushed garlic paste to fight infection. Finally, she wrapped it with clean bandages. The outlaw looked quite pale by the time she had finished that she feared he might pass out on her. It did not fill her with any hope, though, as he had quite effectively trapped her inside.
“Let me make you some willow–bark tea, now,” she said as she put away her herbs.
“No. I told you, no drugs to dim my senses.”
“Willow bark tea is not like that,” she insisted. “I would drink a cup with you, as proof.”
He ignored her, staggering to his feet instead. “Take me to your Reverend Mother now.”
“Not dressed like that! Follow me. We might have a shirt to fit you in the back room.”
“What would a bunch of nuns be doing with men’s’ clothes?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows suggestively.
“Not what you think. Whatever you’re thinking,” she snapped. “The Sisters of Mercy serve the poor. We ran a small school here for children. We treated the sick, fed the hungry, and provided clothing to those who need it most. At least, we did, until recently. Deadwood’s had its share of murderers and cutthroats, which doesn’t attract a lot of settlers. Measles wiped out a share of the town, and two years later fire took out the rest.”
He had followed her while she ranted, through the dining hall, past the rooms that had once been filled with young scholars, then into the back room where the missionary barrels were sorted. Mary Francis scrounged through shirt after shirt until she found one that might fit his broad, muscled form. It was almost too nice for him, being snowy white and of fine linen, but the sleeves were full and would accommodate his large shoulders, bandages and all. She helped him into it, then fastened half a dozen of the small buttons until he slapped her hands away.
“It’s Mary Francis,” she corrected him.
“Sister Mary Francis,” he amended, although he said the word “sister” without an ounce of respect.
God would just have to forgive her, for she wasn’t going to enlighten the outlaw on her status within the convent.
“And you? Who are you?” she asked. “And what are you doing here?”
“It’s better you don’t know,” he said.
“Better for whom?” she whispered, but he ignored it.
She took him upstairs then, to the first bedroom, where her patient lay. Mother Agnes looked so small and frail, her now shrunken body weakened by age and illness barely making a bump in the heavy quilts spread over her. The room was spartan, as all the rooms in the convent were, with only a small end table by the bed, a well–used Bible on the table, and a crucifix on the wall at the foot of the bed where it would be the first thing seen upon rising, and the last thing seen before going to sleep each night.
“Mother Agnes? It’s Mary Francis… are you awake?” She tip–toed into the room and perched lightly on the edge of the bed. She took one cold, frail hand in hers and patted it gently.
Mother Agnes had been a powerful woman in her day. Though she’d never quite made it to five feet in height, no one ever thought of her as tiny. She’d been nearly as wide as she was tall, with thick arms and strong hands that could wield a hairbrush with as much accuracy as a sharpshooter wielded his guns. Mary Francis felt a strange tingle flush through her as she recalled the many times she’d bent over a chair or table to feel that hairbrush on her bared bottom for some infraction, venial or mortal. She knew that the Reverend Mother punished her only because she loved her, for she had often been directed to copy chapter and verse from the Bible after a thorough chastising, pertaining to the rod of correction. Even now, those familiar verses echoed in her mind…
“He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”
“The rod and reproof give wisdom: but the child that is left to his own will bringeth his mother to shame.”
Perhaps the outlaw behind her was the very example of an undisciplined youth. The thought of him draped over Mother Agnes’s lap made her smile.
“Mary Francis? Is that you?” the old voice crackled.
“Yes, Mother,” she answered, still massaging the cold, stiff fingers.
“Have you heard from Father Michael yet? Surely he has heard of our plight… and sent help. We cannot minister to the community, just the two of us. We need experienced sisters, teachers, and healers! Deadwood will recover… there will be children here again. Mark my words, Katie dear. Mark my words!” The sick woman began to cough, at first just a little, but then once begun it was as though she could not stop. Mary Francis helped her to sit, and pounded gently on her back to loosen the congestion. Mother Agnes coughed into her kerchief, and it was stained with red when the fit passed. Mary Francis tucked the bloody kerchief into her robe and offered the old woman a fresh one.
“Yes, Mother. I know. There will be children here again. But I’m afraid something must have happened to Father Michael. I have not heard from him in months. It is not like him to stay away so long.”
“He must have gone back east, to speak to the Bishop about sending reinforcements. That’s it. That’s what he’s doing,” Mother Agnes crooned, although her voice was fading.
The outlaw cleared his throat then, startling them both. Mary Francis had almost forgotten he was there, with her concern for the Reverend Mother.
“Um, excuse me, ma’am,” he mumbled, extending a hand awkwardly.
Mother Agnes’s eyes grew large, and a rare smile spread across her face. “Jake! My boy! You’ve come back! You’ve forgiven me after all of these years! I can die peacefully now. Glory be to God!”
Her outburst caused the coughing to return with a vengeance. The outlaw sat on the other side of the bed and held her, patting her back as he had seen Mary Francis do moments before, with all the tenderness that a son would show his own mother. Mary Francis gaped stupidly. How could this be? Not the holy Reverend Mother! No!
The outlaw looked at her then, and his expression was just as perplexed. He shook his head, silently answering her unasked question. He was not this ‘Jake’ that the old woman spoke of.
Mary Francis refilled a glass with water and offered it to her to help calm the coughing spasm. When Mother Agnes returned to her pillow, she was exhausted. Her eyelids drooped, and her hand was limp in Mary Francis’s hand. Alarmed, Mary Francis pressed a finger to the vein at the base of her jaw and waited. She relaxed when she found a pulse.
“How long has she been like this?” the outlaw whispered.
“Too long, I’m afraid,” Mary Francis answered. “She survived so much – measles, fire, hunger, poverty – perhaps if I’d been able to get her proper medical care, she might have recovered, but I fear it’s too late for that now.”
He didn’t answer, but backed out of the room and waited for her. Mary Francis rinsed a cloth with water and wiped the perspiration from Mother Agnes’s brow. Then she straightened the blankets and tenderly kissed the only mother she had ever known.