The Preacher's Daughter
by Kathi Sprayberry

Sunlight touched Annie Thompson's face. She bolted upright on the pallet that served as her bed.

"Oh, no!" She glanced around the bedroom, taking in the hooks attached to one wall where her dresses and petticoats once hung. "I'm late."

She hurried through her morning routine but had to slow down after buttoning up her dress wrong. Annie grabbed a satchel from beside her bed and sped toward the kitchen. A floorboard creaked beneath her sturdy boots and she froze in place.

"Did Mama and Poppa hear that?" she asked in a near whisper.

No other sounds disturbed the small house and Annie continued her perilous journey until she reached the kitchen. Even then, she couldn't relax. To maintain secrecy, she had to make everything look the same as it did any other day.

"I wish I —"

A cough and a snort stopped her from completing that wish. Annie glanced from right to left, searching. She was always searching in her home. Searching for an escape from her poppa, the preacher of Church of the Beleaguered Lord – Halleluiah! So much had happened since he enticed their congregation to leave Tucson only three years past and settle in Tombstone. So many changes that Annie had a hard time grasping how badly their lives had turned out.

"It's not all bad." Annie slipped a woolen shawl around her shoulders and looked from right to left again.

Wisps of blonde hair slipped loose of the chignon she wore at the nape of her neck. Those hairs dangled against her forehead in miniature ringlets. Midnight blue eyes widened against her peaches and cream complexion. With an hourglass figure and outward docile demeanor, Annie was what most men pictured as the perfect woman; men without enough common sense to see she suffered the tortures of the damned.

"It has to get better soon," Annie whispered. "Thank goodness for Brady."

Her heavy heart lightened as she thought about the red-headed man who'd entered her life a year back. Brady Ryan helped Annie gather a package of shawls she'd attempted to sell at the general store on Fremont Street after a gang of ruffians knocked her all about. His gentle manner gave Annie hope she could forget the awful waking nightmares she suffered several times a day, the same kind her best friend, Sarah Holley, also endured.

For what else could they, two women not yet married, do in the Wild West? Their lives revolved around their father's or husband's. Women had no right to think for themselves. Their duties were nothing but cooking and cleaning, bearing and raising children. No female was ever asked for her opinion on important matters. Those wise in men's ways kept thoughts on politics, ranching, or farming to themselves while murmuring assent if their husband or father asked for agreement.

Raised in such a manner, Annie felt out of place or as if she was a traitor to womankind. For think she did, and opinions sprang from her thoughts. As yet, she hadn't voiced those opinions. That day was coming and Annie decided to risk banishment before she gave those in her church the tongue lashing they deserved.

"Why, then, do I feel like a traitor?" Annie ground coffee and made a pot she set on the back of the grease-coated stove.

She wiped her fingers on a towel that had seen better days and steeled her backbone. Waiting would bring a confrontation with her parents and find Annie trapped in a place where she feared for her sanity.

"Today," Annie whispered and took one last look around the filthy kitchen her parents refused to let anyone clean. "It all changes today."

The first week of October of 1882 would mark the most important decision of Annie's life. Now seventeen, of an age when most girls on the frontier had already married and were expecting their first child, she was about to defy her poppa in a way she never imagined while growing up in Tucson. The madness gripping her parents and most of the men and women in their church drove Annie to escape before anyone found out she saw very strange images along Tombstone's mean streets. Not one to ignore what some called visions from the Lord, Annie couldn't believe the strange rider she encountered daily was real.

"I can't tell anyone." Annie looked around wildly to see if anyone heard her speak. Not that she expected either of her parents to be up this early; both had taken to lying in bed until nearly midday, leaving the running of church matters in her hands and giving Annie time to make her escape. "Please, let Mama and Poppa still be asleep. I couldn't stand it if they stopped me."

Shambling footsteps shook the wood-framed house. Fear crept through Annie. Only one person walked like that.

"Poppa!" Annie felt the wrongness of her situation tighten around her until she had a hard time catching her breath. "I can't let him stop me."

Spurred into action to avoid Poppa's rantings, Annie snatched up the satchel and raced out the kitchen door. She had carried this particular satchel many times in the last week while strolling along the streets, letting people believe she had the shawls inside it she planned to sell. Today, the bag held her clothing. After almost three years living with increasing madness on the part of her parents, Annie Thompson was breaking free.

"Don't let Poppa look out the window," Annie begged the Almighty as she raced out the listing gate. A decaying fence creaked and groaned in the everlasting wind pummeling Tombstone. "Please, Lord, don't let Mama and Poppa find me before I go away with Brady."

Annie made it to the northern edge of the silver mining town and kept up her fast pace until she reached Fifth Street. She slowed her mad dash for a moment. Regret ran through her when she spotted the boarded up catholic church. Father Ryan disappeared last month after everyone heard several volleys of gunshots and the Earp brothers discovered the bodies of a dozen dead miners, half inside the bullet-riddled church. The priest had encouraged Annie to speak with Brady rather than avoiding him and she made a wonderful discovery, one she never thought to make.

Annie fell head over heels in love with a man who treated her with kindness. Brady coaxed Annie out of her fearful distrust of most of Tombstone's residents and showed her there were good people around her.

"It's so wonderful," Annie murmured as she continued toward her destination. "Because of Mama and Poppa, I never thought any man would ask for my hand." Doomed to choose her husband from one of the men in her poppa's church and knowing she would then have to reveal what she saw on Tombstone's mean streets, Annie sought refuge from her terrors. Brady not only understood the fear she thought she hid so well, he suggested that she leave her parents’ home as soon as she felt comfortable doing so. Without any other family, Annie fought the suggestion until her poppa announced at supper last night that he had arranged a marriage for her to a man several years older than she and as corrupt as any of the lawmen in this town. Worse than that, Avery Milkey lusted after the soiled doves in the red light district and kept one of those women in a house he rented in the more respectable part of town, a situation Annie detested with every fiber of her being.

"Avery can find another woman to marry." Annie grinned, a grin of satisfaction at having found a way to thwart Avery's desire to have a wife and a mistress. "Or he can marry his whore. He'll never touch me." Her skin crawled as she imagined his filthy hands touching her in any way. Avery worked in his father's general store but, like most of the members of their church, forgot about bathing and cleanliness as 1882 crawled from scorching summer into too-warm autumn.

At Fremont Street, Annie glanced in all directions before walking into the red light district. No one would look for her around these shacks and tents as filthy as any pigpen. Not a single person who knew her parents would ever suspect Annie had set foot on streets where harlots and reprobates strolled in the open. It was the perfect place to leave behind the town that threatened to drag her into the evil seeping from every corner.

A hand touched her shoulder. Annie's heart sank to the toes of her boots. She held the satchel against her chest and turned around. Ready excuses about Christian charity to the downtrodden sprang to her lips, along with a fervent prayer the person believed her.           

"Oh, Sarah, it's you," Annie said. Relief so great that she almost fainted ran through Annie once she saw her friend.           

Sarah stared at Annie with troubled blue eyes. Strands escaped their confinement from the pins Sarah used to keep the honey-blonde hair restrained. A bit shorter than Annie, and not much taller than most thirteen-year-old boys, Sarah suffered much more than anyone else in Tombstone. Her mama had hidden an awful secret for many years. The revelation of that secret destroyed Sarah's reputation in one breath when it was discovered her parents never married. Sarah was Doc Holliday's illegitimate child. To make matters worse, the man treated her as if she was a cur on the street, going so far as to deny her a name in order to repair her tattered reputation.

"What are you doing?" Sarah looked right and left, one hand clasping the shawl she wore closer to her throat. "Do you want to go through what I do?"

"Of course not." Annie slipped her arm around Sarah's. "I'm just taking a walk. Why are you outside? I thought you'd still be hiding after yesterday."

Several women from the Church of the Beleaguered Lord – Halleluiah! had crossed Sarah's path near Schieffelin Hall yesterday morning. Their scathing comments about pursuing her mother's profession, that of a whore most men despised for all the trouble she caused, drove Sarah to run down Fremont with tears streaming from her eyes. The women gave chase while heaping more abuses upon the hapless girl, until more than half the town witnessed the travesty.

"No." Sarah shivered. "I can handle that but it's all these people." She gestured with her free hand. "They're all covered with that weird black mist."

Therein lay the reason Annie and Sarah continued their relationship even after Reverend Thompson shunned the Holleys. The man went so far as to stalk Sarah and her mother and exhorted Tombstone's citizens to drive the harlots into the desert without food or water. Only a timely intervention by all three of the Earp brothers kept Annie's poppa from continuing to harass Sarah but her mother was another problem. Melinda Holley, as popular opinion put it, had made her bed, and should pay the price for her sins.

"I hate those mists," Sarah complained. "They're everywhere. Doesn't it bother you knowing you're looking at someone who will soon die?"

"The mists aren't always right," Annie whispered. "Didn't Rose O'Cannon live in spite of having a black mist?"

"She did live," Sarah answered. "But at what cost? No decent woman will speak to her."

"It wasn't because of the mist." Annie shook her head at how easily Rose escaped the problems Sarah experienced. "Sometimes the mists are wrong."

Both girls saw mists around people, mists that proclaimed those people would die from violent acts or survive if only by a hairsbreadth. Both felt evil circling Tombstone from all directions. An old Indian once explained the town was cursed, a curse set long ago by gods worshiped by the Chiricahua Apache. So long as white men inhabited the town, violent death stalked them, for Tombstone's citizens had trespassed on sacred ground. Sarah and Annie suspected differently. Neither had yet voiced their suspicions but believed the beings haunting them belonged to biblical lore.

"They're all black," Sarah repeated. "It's awful knowing they'll all die violent deaths. I asked Ma to leave again but she won't without Frank McLaury."

"Piffle." Annie drew Sarah closer. "There are people around Tombstone without the black mists. Father Ryan for one."

"He ran off," Sarah protested. "He's gone forever. I thought Father Ryan would help us but I don't know how to find him."

Annie stared at a red-headed man walking toward them, a man she knew very well. He wore black pants and a pristine white shirt decorated with a black string tie. A black cowboy duster flared out behind him as his booted feet kicked up dust along Fremont Street. The black Stetson atop his head shaded his green eyes, eyes Annie often found herself drowning in.

"The mist around him is white," Sarah said. "Like a few others." Her voice dropped to an almost inaudible murmur. "Like Henry."

Henry Stuart was the only bright light in Sarah's lonely life. Annie hoped the man took her friend away from the hatred soon. Only then could Sarah find the same happiness Annie had.

The man stopped in front of the women. Annie turned a beatific smile upon him.

"Sarah Holley, meet Brady Ryan," Annie said. "One of Father Ryan's brothers. Brady's taking me away from Tombstone."

"Annie!" Sarah cried. "No! You can't do this. You promised."

Guilt lay upon Annie like a heavy blanket. As soon as she left with Brady, Sarah had no one to confide in or seek out in times of trouble. Yet, returning home held no appeal for Annie.

"It's won't be for long." Brady took Sarah's arm and led her off a few steps.

They spoke for quite a while. Those who lived in the red light district rose and dove into their debauched lives. A few of the whoremasters eyed Annie with lascivious grins. Uneasy, she crept closer to where Sarah and Brady conversed.

"You can do this, Sarah," Brady said. "We have to get Annie away from here. Her parents and most of those in their church are insane but no one will do anything about that. Do you want Annie's life in danger to remain with you?"

Sarah looked as if she would start crying right there in the middle of Fremont Street, with all the whores and gamblers watching. Annie knew a moment of acute embarrassment for her friend. After all, Sarah's life was as hard as Annie's but without the promise of freedom from the bindings holding the dear girl in servitude.

"I understand," Sarah said after gulping back tears. She walked over to Annie and they hugged. "Forget my hasty words," she begged. "I would never ask you to stay for a silly promise."

"It wasn't a silly promise." Annie stepped back and managed a watery smile for her lifelong friend. "I . . . I —"

Sarah pressed two fingers over Annie's lips.

"Go before your poppa discovers what you've done," Sarah said. "Don't look back, Annie. And don't worry about me. Brady says Henry will stay close."

The hope in Sarah's voice gave Annie the strength to walk away with Brady. The couple strolled along Fremont until the street petered out at the edge of the high desert surrounding Tombstone. The constant visions Annie experienced began to fade, as did the sight of black or white mists around the town's residents. For the first time in three years, she dragged a breath of air free from the taint she felt in this place.

"I'm sorry you had to leave Sarah behind," Brady said, always so formal when speaking to Annie in public. He took her hand in his and gave it a warm squeeze. "It'll work out. Henry will watch out for Sarah and bring her to the rest of us as soon as it's safe to do so."

Annie didn't understand much about Brady's life. Most of what she knew about his family came from information tossed around Tombstone's mean streets, speculation on how a group of men that looked so much alike and had the same last name denied a familial relationship. One night, after Annie snuck out of her parent's house, she met Brady and they walked out of the town into the desert where he revealed the truth. He, his brothers, mother, sister, and father were part of a large contingent of US Marshals in Tombstone to investigate the unusual problems; unusual as in there were more violent deaths and shootings here than almost any other town in Arizona Territory. Their identities were kept secret from just about everyone for their safety. No one in the town but a very few knew the real reason behind their sudden appearance two years back.

"I understand but I worry about Sarah." Annie watched as Brady hung her satchel on the saddle horn of a gorgeous Palomino. "How long do you think Sarah will have to stay in Tombstone?"

She held the impression Brady's family had come to the rescue of another woman who'd disappeared. Rose O'Cannon reappeared a month ago and left a few weeks later, some said to California. She frightened Annie, for Rose took on a man's job without thought as to how others viewed her actions.

"Not long," Brady promised and pulled a flat-brimmed hat from his saddlebags. "Wear this, Annie-love, else your skin will burn to a crisp before we get to the ranch."

He'd finally called her Annie-love. Delightful shivers ran up and down Annie's body. She had no doubts as to Brady's love, even though he kept the gentle caresses and non-demanding kisses for when they were sure to avoid interruption. Her man never showed his emotions in public, which suited Annie just fine. No one else, not even Sarah, should know of how soft a man Brady truly was. Annie loosened her hair until the blonde locks flowed down her back and slapped the hat atop her head. A chin strap dangled in front of her throat, which she tightened to keep the hat in place.

"You'll have to ride behind me." Brady mounted and held out a hand after freeing one booted foot from the stirrup. "It's not far, Annie. An hour, maybe less."

"I'll be all right." Annie grasped his gloved hand and put her foot into the stirrup. In a tick, he swung her around behind him and she sat on the broad rump of the horse, her arms circling Brady's strong torso while she rested a cheek against his duster. "Get me away from here, Brady, before I stay for Sarah's sake."

"Home, Cathmore," Brady commanded.

The stallion set off in a sedate walk. Annie watched as Tombstone faded from view. Finally, she was free of a town that threatened to tear apart everything she held dear, and still might if Sarah didn't escape the clutches of those determined to ruin her.

I'll make sure you escape, Sarah. Annie silently promised. Even if I have to come for you in the dead of night, I'll find a way to free you from Doc Holliday's clutches.

All around Annie and Brady, Saguaro cactus lifted their great arm-like limbs toward the sky. Boulders dotted a landscape almost void of life, except for rattlesnakes, jackrabbits, and coyotes.

"Cathmore is an unusual name for a horse," Annie said, breaking the long silence. "What does it mean?"

There was a meaning behind the horse's name, of that she was sure. Of English ancestry herself, Annie didn't let centuries long feuds stop her from loving a man whose family escaped Ireland's Potato Famine.

"Great warrior," Brady said. "It's Gaelic for great warrior. Da spoke of Ireland's legends and warriors when I picked out Cathmore. The name fit for the duties he has to accomplish."

His brusque way of speaking in no way worried Annie. Brady's muscles bunched under her arms and she felt tension radiating from him. Although their friendship was short, Annie knew with all her heart that Brady Ryan was the man she'd stand by for the rest of her life. He was one of the few people she trusted.

"We're safe now. Aren't we?" Annie asked.

"Sure and we are," Brady said, lapsing into the Irish Brogue she loved as much as she did him. "It's just all we have to do. There's so much I still have to tell you, Annie-love, but I can't until we're safe with my family." He stopped for a moment and then urged Cathmore on. "We're here. Thank goodness. We're here and no one tried to stop us."

Annie peered around Brady's back as they rode into a fenced area surrounding a sprawling ranch house. A man stood on the covered porch, a flat-brimmed black hat atop his fiery red hair.

"Father Ryan!" Annie gasped. "How? Why? When?"

"Dwyer was in trouble as much as you are, Annie-love." Brady stopped and waited for Dwyer to join them. "Help my Annie down, brother," Brady said. "Treat her gently."

"Always." Dwyer placed his hands around Annie's waist and lifted her to the ground. "It's good to see you here, Annie. I worried about you."

"And how I worried about you!" Annie moved into Brady's protective embrace when more people gathered around.

More than a few looked like Brady and Father Ryan, including a girl Annie's age. That girl didn't have the bright red hair like the rest of the Ryan's. Hers was more of a red that resembled sunset the one time a fire ravaged the eastern side of Tombstone with molten gold streaks highlighting a face from which green eyes peered at the world with fear and suspicion; the same fear and suspicion that was Annie's view of the world.

"Megan," Annie said. "You're far more beautiful than Brady told me."

"You must be Annie," Megan Ryan said. "Call me Meg." She threw a saucy look at the rest of her family. "Welcome to our haven." Meg flung a hand at the ranch now teeming with men, women, and children. "Or prison. Depends on who you are as to how you view this place."

"Enough, Meg," Brady said in a sharp tone. "Don't scare Annie."

Meg poked out her tongue, making Annie laugh. Oh, how wonderful it would have been growing up in a family such as this one. No one worried about position or age it seemed. They all offered smiles of welcome while also going out of their way to make Annie feel at ease. She truly had come to a haven.

"I'm not scared, Brady," Annie said. "I feel like I've come home."

She truly had found peace and sanctuary, for however long it lasted. Annie pressed against Brady as she realized a horrible confrontation was on the horizon. Hopefully, the battle would happen far from here. She vowed never to set foot in Tombstone again. Annie had no idea what it was that was coming — the sensation of trouble looming was really more of a feeling than anything else. But she felt strongly that Tombstone would never be the nice, quiet little town she’d moved to from Tucson three years earlier.

The End