Mail Order Madeline by Patricia PacJac Carroll

Chapter 1

 

Madeline Carey eased past the over-eager patron at her uncle’s saloon, The Brass Monkey. She hated the dark, smoke-filled den crowded with desperate men. She could see the danger in their eyes. Hungry for money, liquor, and womanly companionship, they grabbed at whoever came near.

The gambling tables were full. Loud, whether winner or loser. The winners hollered and bought more whiskey. The losers cursed and challenged the dealers. Sometimes with a knife, fists, or words, but other times with a gun.

More than one girl had met her end by a bullet meant for the dealer. Madeline hated her uncle. He’d taken her after her father died from a stray bullet in Abilene. A simple storeowner, her father, had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Madeline looked around. Apparently, she was too. The store didn’t have any money. Father had been a lousy businessman. So, she had no other place to go but with the man that came to collect her. Even then, she doubted Anson was in any way related to her mother. But he convinced the few interested people in town, and Uncle Anson took her to live with him in Sheridan, Kansas.

At first, he had her washing the dishes and staying in the back of the saloon. Then as she grew into a young woman, he had his head madam, Rose, take her up the stairs to get a new wardrobe and job. That was two years ago.

Now at the age of twenty-one, Madeline felt old. Oh, the men liked her, but her dreams were gone. They’d died that first night. Feeling used up and dirty, the only way out Madeline could see was in a pine box.

Once she’d been a decent human being, now she lived in such soulish filth that there weren’t enough baths to cleanse her. She was still pretty. Beautiful even. But her heart was dead.

She stopped at the top of the stairs and tried to pick out the dangerous men to stay away from. They usually had deep frowns, soulless eyes, and harsh voices. She focused on the younger ones closer to her age, but even some of them were already locked into the sinful life of evil desires.

“Madison, come on down here. I’ve missed you.”

She turned her gaze to the drunken cowboy. Alex Hunter, the middle son of a prominent rancher and usually a good time and certainly not dangerous. His younger brother, Eric, was another story. But tonight, it was just Alex.

Madeline waved and made her way down the stairs. It might be a safe night if Alex stayed around. She went to him and put an arm around his neck. “I’m here, sweety. Want to get a table?”

Alex pointed to the back. “Over there. I’ll get a bottle.”

She sat down to wait. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Anson’s office door open, and her uncle and a man walked out of the office. The visitor was big, over six foot and muscle-bound like a bull.

Madeline quickly looked away. She didn’t like what she’d seen and didn’t want anything to do with the big man. She hoped Alex would come back soon, but he was still at the bar, laughing with his brother.

Alex turned and took a step when Eric stopped him and shoved a bottle in his chest. Then the two of them started for her table.

Madeline was annoyed. Alex, she could handle, but Eric was trouble. He’d hurt one of the girls last week. If their pa hadn’t paid her uncle a healthy amount for the damages, he’d have preferred charges. As it turned out, only the girl paid for Eric’s cruelty.

Arriving at the same time as the brothers, the big man with Anson shoved Alex away from the table. “This one. I like her looks.”

Her uncle shrugged, but the look in his eyes was one of pity. “I said you could have your pick.”

“I’ll take her. What’s your name, pretty?” He said the word like a slimy insult.

Feeling sick to her stomach, Madeline pointed to Alex. “I’m with him. Sorry, you’re too late.” She stared at the big man, challenging him.

The man narrowed his gaze at her and sneered. “Anson, do you want to tell her, or do you want me to?”

Her uncle came around to her side. “Madison, I have an agreement with Mr. Conlan. He paid for you for the weekend. Alex and Eric can go sit with Vickie.” His tone and eyes begged for her to go along.

With a nod, Conlan pulled out a chair and sat down with his back to the boys.

Madison knew that was a mistake. She tried to move, but Conlan held her in place.

Eric shoved past Alex and sat beside her. “We had her first.”

Conlan stared at the boy. “How old are you, son?”

“I’m not your son, but I’m old enough.” Eric glared at Conlan and dropped his hand to his pistol.

Madison wanted to disappear before she became meat between the two predators. “I won’t be a part of any killing.”

She twisted out of Conlan’s grasp and stood, but before she could take a step, Conlan’s hand shot out and held her wrist with an iron grip. “You’re staying. What Eric wants to do, is no worry of mine.” He pulled her to him and wrapped an arm around her. “I don’t think either of these boys wants to see you get hurt.”

She sent a look to her uncle. “Please, tell him to let me go.”

Anson shook his head. “I can’t. Alex, Eric, come with me. There’s a table in the back with a new gambler. I’ll see you get the best whiskey and fair shake at the cards.”

Alex put a hand on Eric’s shoulder. “Come on, Pa said don’t get in trouble.”

For a moment, Eric hesitated. Then he stood and left with his brother and followed her uncle.

Conlan flexed his muscles and then stood, bringing her up with him. “Let’s go.”

Madeline tried to shut down, but the fear pumping through with each beat of her heart kept her alert. This was no ordinary man. His every breath sent tension through the room, and people made sure to get out of his way. She caught sympathetic looks from the other girls. That her uncle was nowhere to be seen sent a chill down her spine.

Deep inside, Madeline began to shake. Tonight, something had changed between her uncle and herself and this Conlan. He must have something over Anson, for her uncle looked as fearful as Madeline felt.

By the grip on her arm, she knew Conlan was strong. Once inside the room, she wouldn’t have a chance to get away. Not that there was anywhere to go if she did. They climbed up the stairs.

At the top, Conlan pulled her along the hallway. Not talking, not pausing, but committed to reaching the room at the end of the hall.

Ellie came out of her room. One of her eyes was bloodied, and she stumbled into Madeline.

Not needing a reminder of the cruelty facing her, Madeline pushed the woman from her. Ellie hung onto her arm and whispered. “Take it and use it. I know him.” Cold metal was forced into Madeline’s hand.

Ellie righted herself and walked away with her head up.

Madeline stuffed the derringer into her skirt pocket. She’d never shot anyone and doubted she could. Then she remembered Ellie’s bloodied face. The danger in the man at her side was tangible. Every step brought her closer to the evil that awaited her.

Conlan stood in front of the door, kicked it open, and dragged her inside. “Please me, and you’ll leave this room a little worse for wear. Cross me, and you won’t walk out on your own.” His words were a warning hiss before he threw her at the bed.

She hit the side of the bed, and her head banged into the table next to it. With the breath knocked out of her and her head ringing from hitting the hard wood, she could barely see straight.

He slammed the door shut.

The harsh noise snapped her focus to the man. Looking like a giant, he walked to her, yanked her up, and tore the skimpy dress from her shoulder.

She cried out.

Conlan slapped her, drawing blood from her lip.

Looking into his fierce eyes, she shrank back.

Conlan sneered and held up a knife. “Easy now.”

She knew about men who liked to cut the girls. Anger and fear surged through Madeline, and she jerked away from him.

“You’re not going to cut me. Put that knife down.” She glared at the man, but it was as if an evil force had taken him over, and she doubted he could hear her.

Conlan drew in a breath and walked toward her, sneering as he came at her.

Madeline felt for the gun, hoped it was loaded, and waited. Could she pull the trigger? She didn’t want to kill anyone.

The big man came toward her, hissing threats and cursing as he came. He grabbed her by the neck and had the knife at her breast when she pulled the trigger.

A muffled shot rang out. Conlan jerked, squeezed her neck tighter, choking her.

Desperate, she fired again.

Shock masked his face. His eyes lost their murderous sheen, and he slumped to the floor, blood oozing from his chest. Soon his shirt was blood-stained and dripping to the worn carpet. He moaned but didn’t get up.

Not sure if he was dead or not, she backed away from him. She thought she saw his chest move up and down. Maybe he wasn’t dead. She hadn’t wanted to kill him. Whatever his condition, she panicked and ran before he could get his hands on her again.

Rubbing her neck, Madeline looked around. Had anyone heard the shots? To cover her torn dress, she grabbed a blanket from the bed and crawled out of the window onto a balcony. Shivering in the cold, she looked for a way down.

Shouts came from downstairs. She did not want to get caught for shooting Conlan or go back into the saloon. She climbed over the railing, jumped to the ground, and ran into the dark night.