Unending devotion, p.1

Unending Devotion, page 1

 

Unending Devotion
 



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Unending Devotion


  © 2012 by Jody Hedlund

  Published by Bethany House Publishers

  11400 Hampshire Avenue South

  Bloomington, Minnesota 55438

  www.bethanyhouse.com

  Bethany House Publishers is a division of

  Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Michigan

  www.bakerpublishinggroup.com

  Ebook edition created 2012

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—for example, electronic, photocopy, recording—without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

  ISBN 978-1-4412-6042-0

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

  This is a work of historical reconstruction; the appearances of certain historical figures are therefore inevitable. All other characters, however, are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Cover design by Jennifer Parker

  Cover photography by Mike Habermann Photography, LLC

  For all of the many women who are helpless, hurting, and abused:

  May you find a way out of the coldness of winter into the fresh spring of freedom and hope.

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Copyright Page

  Dedication

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Author Note

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Books by Jody Hedlund

  Back Ads

  Back Cover

  Chapter

  1

  JANUARY 1883

  CENTRAL MICHIGAN

  It was time. The drunk shanty boys were finally quiet.

  Lily Young peered up through the shadows of the early morning darkness to the balcony that ran the length of the hotel. It was higher than she’d thought. Good thing she’d brought a rope.

  She drummed her stiff fingers inside her mittens and lifted her gaze to the clear sky overhead. The last stars were fading. The lumber town would awaken with the first hints of light. And soon the woods would ring with the chopping and sawing of the shanty boys, who needed to make the most of each minute of daylight for their hard labor.

  Which meant if her rescue was going to succeed, it was now or never.

  But where was Edith?

  Lily stepped away from the building and scanned the windows of the upper floor. Only yesterday, she’d looked the young girl in the eyes, watched the tears pool in their painful depths, and confirmed the escape plans.

  Had the girl changed her mind so soon?

  A window scraped open. Each halting inch up, the wooden frame rasped like a dying man gasping for breath. A bare foot poked through the opening followed by a slender bare leg.

  Lily released a swoosh of air that made a white puff in front of her. “Good,” she whispered. Another life rescued from the pit of hell. Yes, it was only one. And it wasn’t her sister.

  But it was a life that needed saving nonetheless. How could she stand back and do nothing—especially when her own sister was suffering the same fate somewhere?

  The young girl climbed out the window. She took one step forward then stopped and wrapped her arms across her camisole. Dressed only in her undergarments, the girl shook like twigs in a winter gale.

  “Edith. Here,” Lily called softly. “I’m over here.”

  The girl tiptoed to the edge of the balcony and leaned over, her eyes wide with fear.

  “We’re fine. Everyone’s still asleep.” Lily uncoiled the rope. “Tie this on the rail.”

  She tossed the rope toward the girl.

  With shaking hands Edith wrapped the cord around a post, all the while casting glances over her shoulder toward the open window.

  “You’re going to be fine,” Lily whispered. “Just focus.”

  The girl managed to hoist herself over the banister. With faltering movements, she snaked down the rope until Lily’s outstretched arms reached her and supported her the rest of the way.

  When the girl’s feet finally touched the hard-packed snow, Lily grabbed the coarse sack she’d left in the snowdrift and dug through it for the items she’d brought for Edith. “Quick. Put these on.” She handed Edith her only rubbers and then draped a blanket around the girl’s shoulders.

  “Curse the men who think women are no better than cattle,” Lily muttered. The tavern owner had confiscated his girls’ coats and shoes to keep them from running away. Of course, not all the prostitutes wanted to leave their life of degradation. But the minute she’d seen Edith, she’d known the girl was miserable, as miserable as her sister would be by now.

  Lily slipped an arm around Edith. If only she could find Daisy . . .

  During the past few weeks of living in Farwell’s only temperance hotel, Lily had done the best she could to search for her sister among the dregs. And after questioning some of the prostitutes, like Edith, she was confident Daisy hadn’t been in Farwell.

  None of the shanty boys she’d talked to had seen anyone who fit the description of her sister. And she’d jabbered with plenty of the boys over the past month while helping photograph the lumber camps in the area.

  The squeak of cutter blades on the icy road and the jangle of horse harnesses sent Lily’s heart slipping downhill. Silently, she stepped to the side of the building and pulled Edith next to her. She put her mittened hand to her lips in warning.

  “If Big Joe finds me, he’ll beat me.” The girl’s voice wobbled.

  “Stay right by my side,” Lily whispered. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

  The cutter inched down the wide main street of the sleeping lumber town. In the predawn light, Lily could make out the hunched back of the driver. She released a breath and squeezed Edith. “Everything’s all right. It’s Oren.”

  Lily moved away from the hotel and waved at the oncoming cutter.

  It slid to a stop, rattling the camera equipment that was piled high on the supply sled tied to the rear. Beneath a black derby hat, Oren’s bushy eyebrows narrowed to a dark V. He shook his head and muttered, “What in the hairy hound do you think you’re doing?”

  “Edith needs a ride out of town,” Lily said. “And since we’re leaving, I figured we could give her a hand.”

  “Girl, you’re going to be the death of me one of these days.”

  She was sure Oren was remembering the rescue from the previous month over near Averill that had resulted in a chase and several gunshots. “Well now”—she patted his arm—“if you stay quiet enough, we’ll be able to get out of town before anyone hears us.”

  Oren grumbled again. Thankfully his walrus mustache muffled most of his words.

  Lily helped Edith into the cutter and draped a thick buffalo robe across her. She brushed the girl’s
tangled hair out of her face. The heavy locks were in need of a good washing and brushing.

  “You’re going to be just fine now.” She gave the girl the same smile and reassurance she used to give her sister on the many dark and lonesome nights when it had been just the two of them, when she’d been the only one to comb the tangles from Daisy’s hair, hold her tight, and wipe the tears off her cheeks. She’d had to be both mother and father for as long as she could remember.

  The ache in her heart squeezed painfully. Who was wiping Daisy’s tears now?

  A gust of frigid air slipped under Lily’s collar and slithered down her back. She shivered and drew her coat tighter. But the cold tentacles of guilt gripped her insides and wouldn’t let go.

  How could she have let this happen? It had always been her job to protect her little sister and to make sure she was safe and happy. How could she have failed so horribly?

  Lily climbed into the open sleigh and tucked the blanket under Edith’s quivering chin. She grazed the girl’s cheek. “It’s all over now.”

  The girl nodded, but her focus darted to the open window of the hotel, where the edge of a tattered curtain blew through the opening like a crooked finger beckoning Edith to return.

  “By the time the cookee blows the nooning horn,” Lily said softly, “you’ll be settled safe and warm in your new home.”

  Home . . .

  Tight anguish pushed up Lily’s throat.

  If only someone had rescued her and Daisy long ago . . . and if only she and Daisy could have had a real home . . . and a real family . . . then maybe Daisy wouldn’t have had to run away.

  Lily ducked her head to hide the sudden pool of tears that the bitter January air had already turned cold.

  The slam of a door somewhere down the street echoed in the hollowness of dawn, and she quickly wedged herself into the tight space left on the seat.

  “We best be going.” She kept her gaze straight ahead.

  Oren grunted. “Now that I’m packed in here like a dill pickle in a pill bottle, I won’t be needing this.” Before Lily could protest, he shoved aside his buffalo robe and tossed it toward her.

  She caught the heavy fur, and a waft of sweet tobacco enveloped her. Of course Oren wasn’t smoking his corncob pipe at such an ungodly early hour of the morning, but once the sun rose above the tips of the white pines, the older man was rarely without it.

  “You’ll be needing the blanket soon enough.” Lily pushed the robe back his way. Just because she’d covered Edith with hers didn’t mean she expected Oren to suffer.

  Oren ignored her outstretched arm and picked up the reins. “I’ve got more blubber than a bear in hibernation.”

  “This was my doing, and I’ll bear the responsibility.” She held her outstretched arm rigid.

  He flicked the reins at his team and the cutter lurched forward. “If anyone’s going to need the warmth this morning, it’s you two bean poles. Especially now that I’ll have to go out of my way to drop your new friend off at Molly May’s.”

  Lily sat back and tugged the robe across her lap. A smile tickled the corners of her lips. Even though he’d grumbled like usual, she’d known he would help. He always did.

  Oren caught her gaze above Edith’s head. His eyes shone with admiration. And something else, gentler. He might never say the words, but Lily knew he understood her agony and would do anything in the world to help her.

  “Thank you,” she mouthed.

  “Oh, don’t thank me,” he muttered. “I’ll be making you work your hind end off at the next place to make up for this here delay.”

  “I always work hard. And you know it. Besides, if it weren’t for me dragging those shanty boys over to the camera, you wouldn’t have half as many customers.”

  He just snorted.

  This time her smile broke free. She might not have a real family, but she had a good friend. And she couldn’t forget to thank the Lord for that.

  And she couldn’t forget to thank the Lord that he’d helped her save another poor young girl. If He’d made it His mission to save lost sinners while on earth, then certainly she could do no less with her life. Besides, if she could steal Edith away, then she couldn’t give up hope that someday, somehow, she’d find her sister too.

  She’d rescue her or die trying.

  Lily tramped up the plank step of the hotel and read the bold capital letters painted above the door: Northern Hotel Est. 1881. Out of four hotels in Harrison, the Northern was the only one with temperance leanings. She prayed there would be rooms available.

  She refused to stay in any establishment that was “wet.” She’d just as soon set up a tent and sleep in the woods before she supported the drinking and carousing that too many of the lumber-town hotels offered. Even if that meant she’d have to freeze to death or face a pack of wolves.

  Of course she was more than ready to get out of the sub-freezing temperature. After traveling most of the day from Midland, where they’d left Edith in the capable hands of Molly May and her home for young girls, Lily was stiffer and colder than one of the long icicles hanging from the slanted eaves above her head.

  With a determined set of her shoulders, she pushed the door open. A whoosh of warmth greeted her, along with the thick odor of woodsmoke and overcooked beans.

  A gush of wind swept into the room with her before she wrangled the door closed. She swiped off her hood and used her teeth to tug snow-crusted mittens from her numb fingers. She stuffed the mittens into her coat pocket, and only then did she realize how silent the room had grown.

  Several kerosene lamps hung from the ceiling and cast a smoky dim light over two long tables half filled with big burly men holding forks poised above their tin plates heaped high with beans, fried potatoes, and salt pork. A dozen pairs of eyes were fixed upon her.

  She gave them a nod. “Evening.” Then her gaze found what she sought—the proprietor or perhaps his wife—coming through the door from the kitchen carrying a steaming coffeepot in each hand.

  “My, my, my. What do we have here?” The husky woman stopped short. Her face was as red as raw beef, likely heated from the six-hole range Lily glimpsed in the kitchen.

  “Evening,” Lily said, this time to the woman.

  The way everyone was staring at her, she might have believed she was the first young woman they’d ever seen—if she hadn’t known better. The fact was, there were too many women like Edith who lived and worked in the lumber towns. Lily knew she was rare, only in that she wasn’t up on the table dancing in her skimpies.

  “I’m checking to see if you have any rooms available for lease.”

  “If there aren’t any, don’t you worry,” one of the men said. “I can make a spot for you in mine.”

  A chorus of guffaws rounded the tables, but Lily didn’t bother to acknowledge the crude comment. After the past several months of living in various lumber towns, she was used to the depravation of the men.

  The big woman ambled to the closest table and thumped the coffeepots down, sloshing some of the dark liquid onto the oilskin table covering that looked like it already had plenty of spills. “Now, boys, you know Mr. Heller and I run a good Christian establishment here. My husband and I won’t put up with any nonsense under this roof.”

  “But if the girl needs a bed,” the man continued, “I’m just doing my Christian duty by offering to share.”

  “You don’t get her in your room,” another man growled. “If anybody gets the girl, it’s gonna be me.”

  “I think you’ve just been itching for a fight all day, ain’t you, Jimmy?” The first man pushed back from the table and rose to his feet.

  “Boys, now don’t you upset dinner.” Mrs. Heller crossed her thick arms across her grease-splattered apron. “I won’t stand for it.”

  But Jimmy was already rising. Before Lily could think to move, he’d come toward her and grabbed her. Within seconds she found herself in a tug-of-war between the two shanty boys.

  “Let go of me!” she dem
anded, but they were too busy yelling at each other to notice.

  Mrs. Heller abandoned the coffeepots and charged toward the men. She pulled a thick wooden spoon from her deep apron pocket and wielded it in front of her. “Boys, enough! This is just enough of this nonsense! If you don’t stop, you’ll force me to give you a whoppin’ with my spoon.” But they didn’t pay attention to her either.

  For an instant, alarm shattered the usual calmness of Lily’s spirit. Maybe she’d been wrong to disregard Oren’s hesitation when she’d first insisted he take her along during his itinerant picture taking among the lumber camps.

  “Those towns are loaded with danger,” he’d muttered. “They’re infested with graybacks and deadbeats. And if one doesn’t get you, the other will.”

  So far she’d avoided both the lice and any encounters with rowdy men. But there were plenty of shanty boys who had referred to Harrison as “Hell’s Waiting Room.” What if they’d been right?

  “Take your hands off the young lady.” A stern voice rose above the clatter.

  The two men ceased their struggle, and silence fell over the room.

  A broad-shouldered muscular man had abandoned his plate and risen from the bench. An unruly lock of blond hair fell across his forehead above dark green eyes. There was something commanding about his expression.

  “I don’t think this is any way to treat a guest,” he said, “do you?”

  None of the men said anything, but the two holding her made no move to unhand her.

  “Connell’s right.” Mrs. Heller huffed. Her face was a shade redder than it had been before—if that were possible. “This one looks like she’s a decent God-fearing girl. And even if she’s not—”

  “Oh, you can rest assured that I am,” Lily said quickly, struggling to free her arms from the tight grip of the men.

  Mrs. Heller pointed her spoon at the two men. “I’ve a mind to write home to your mamas about your foolishness. And you know as well as I do, my letters would bring those poor women to tears.”

  One of the men released her, but the other—Jimmy—just gave a short laugh, revealing a black space where he was missing a top front tooth on one side with only half of a jagged tooth on the other. His fingers dug into her arm, and his smile was hard with the lust she’d seen often enough.

 
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