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From author Elizabeth Lane – 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 ParkCity, 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!”