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Chapter One

Dayton, Ohio

“No! He can’t make me! I just won’t do as he says, Aunt Claudia. I hate him!” twelve-year-old Rachel declared, stomping her slippered foot on the floor of the parlor.

“That is not lady-like behavior, young miss,” Claudia scolded the young girl. “A young lady must always control her emotions.”

“I simply cannot help it, Aunt Claudia! I do not wish to go out there! I won’t, and he can’t make me! I want to stay here with you!” Rachel pleaded, tears filling her blue eyes and running down over her cheeks.

Claudia took out her lace-trimmed handkerchief and wiped the child’s face. “Melinda, you are very quiet.”

“What is there to say, Aunt Claudia? We simply will write back and tell him not to come. He is a perfect stranger to us, and I cannot fathom why he thinks we should wish to travel across the country to some uncivilized territory to live on a ranch that is over a day’s ride to get to the closest town. And what does he mean by ‘serviceable clothing?’ she asked Claudia.

“I assume he means clothing that is suitable for travel and living on a ranch,” she answered the sixteen-year-old.

“We are not going, and that is final,” Melinda stated, dropping the letter on the coffee table. “I will write to him at once and tell him not to come here. I do not know why he sent Mama here to live away from him, but as far as I am concerned, I want nothing to do with the man. In all these years he has not once written to either of us. I suppose he wrote to Mama. I know she would get upset and cry sometimes after reading the mail, but that is none of our business. We choose to stay with you, Aunt Claudia, unless we are a burden?” she asked directly.

“You are both precious dears to me, and I am more than delighted you wish to remain with me.”

The girls both hugged her, and then hurried off to their rooms to pen letters to their father, while leaving Claudia alone to try and control her own raging temper the best she could. It was up to her to set a good example for the girls, but she wanted to throw something and stomp her own foot like Rachel had. How dare Benton Graves think to take the girls clear out to Wyoming territory where they knew no one, and with their own father a complete stranger to them? How could she trust him not to harm them in some odious manner just to get even with Eleanor for leaving him when she was pregnant with Rachel?

Claudia had moved in with the girls and Eleanor when Eleanor became ill, and when she died, Claudia moved the girls to her own home, along with their personal belongings. Eleanor’s house and its furnishings had been sold and the monies put in trust for the girls, per Eleanor’s will. It was her wish that her best friend, Claudia Davies, have custody of the girls, and raise them since she would not be there to do so. Claudia purposely did not try to contact Benton Graves, but someone must have done so. She did not want interference from the overbearing man. He’d given up his right to be a father long ago.

The doorbell rang, followed by a loud knocking on the front door. Since the housekeeper was doing the marketing, Claudia rose and went to see who was there. They were still in mourning for another two weeks, and only very close friends were expected to drop by the house. Claudia was doing her best to teach the girls about proper etiquette.

“Yes?” she said as she opened the door, then her mouth fell open as her eyes traveled upwards and upwards until she looked in the blue eyes that looked so much like Melinda’s and Rachel’s, they could only belong to one man, Benton Graves. “What are you doing here?” she asked, unaware that her green eyes were snapping with pure temper. “Just go away. The girls want nothing to do with you. You are a stranger to them!”

“And whose fault is that?” he countered, his voice deep and rich, and she wondered if he ever sang. If he didn’t, he should. “Eleanor is the one who left me and took my daughter with her, and had the other one here. I’ve never seen my own child.”

“You beat Eleanor; she was afraid of you!”

“I did not beat Eleanor. I put her over my knee and spanked her, and she damn well had it coming to her. Now where are the girls? I want to see them. Are they packed yet?”

“They got your letter today. They are upstairs writing to you and telling you not to come. They do not wish to go with you.”

“Too bad; they are coming.”

“No, they are not! I will take you to court if I have to. Eleanor gave me custody of them.”

“The hell you say!” Benton was furious. “They have a father. She kept them away from me for years. Now it is my turn to be the parent, and you are not going to stop me.”

“Yes, I am.”

He put his hands around her waist and lifted her off the floor to put her down once he was inside the house. He bellowed up the steps, “Melinda! Rachel! Come down here right now!”

The girls came running. They were not used to being summoned in such a manner, and they both feared for their Aunt Claudia. “Aunt Claudia, are you all right?” Rachel asked fearfully, running to her and putting her arms around her. “Who is he?” she asked in a loud whisper.

“Look at him, Rachel,” Melinda said caustically. “Who else do we know who would wear a hat like that in the city? It must be our dear, long lost father.”

“I do not like your sarcasm, young lady. You aren’t too big for a good spanking.”

“I do not like you, and if you touch me I will scream and have you arrested. We were writing to tell you to stay out there in that awful place where you reside with all the Indians. Rach and I are not going out there to live. We are staying with Aunt Claudia.”

“Girl, you are comin’ with me, and she is not your aunt. She is not related to you at all!”

“We love her, and we are staying with her.”

“You see, Mr. Graves? The girls are perfectly happy here with me.”

“They haven’t given me or Wyoming a chance,” he argued.

“Legally, I am their guardian, and I want you to leave my house immediately. I refuse to permit them to go anywhere with you.”

“Lady, we are goin’ to butt heads.”

“I refuse to be intimidated by you! Get out of my home NOW!”

Benton Graves gave the three of them a heated look and then stomped from the house, giving the door a slam that jarred the entire house. Rachel promptly burst into tears and Melinda quietly went upstairs to her room.

Claudia penned a note, and yelled for a boy to run it to her lawyer’s office downtown. She needed his counsel in a big hurry.

* * *

Benton Graves was royally pissed off, and people stepped out of his way, giving him a wide berth as he marched down the street. He finally stopped at a corner newsstand and asked the man working there, “I need a good lawyer; who should I ask for and where is he located?”

The man stammered and stuttered, but he directed Benton to an office two blocks away.

The attorney was already with a client, but his secretary said he would be able to see Benton shortly. He thanked the man, removed his hat, and took a seat. He went over the facts in his head, and was sure his rights as the girls’ father trumped Claudia Davies’ claim as their guardian. He couldn’t believe that Eleanor told Claudia that he beat her. He couldn’t help but relive the episode in his mind as he waited:

“I’m sorry, Ellie, but I can’t take the time to take you to town right now. I know you want to get started on your sewing for the new baby, but I’m needed here for the next few days. Once I get the branding done, I’ll take you and we’ll even spend a couple of days at the hotel and eat in that new restaurant. You can buy what you want, and we’ll do some visiting and go to church.”

“All you ever think about is work! I really want to go today, Ben! Let the men do the branding.”

“I can’t, honey. I have to be here to make sure it is done right. This isn’t something I can ignore or put off, El. We need to mark those calves with our brand to prove that we own them. It’s important. Right now if another ranch wanted to up their stock dishonorably, they could steal our calves and slap their brand on them, and I wouldn’t be able to prove a thing. This job has to come first, honey. You go on now, and try to find something else to do. Maybe some knitting for the baby, or a quilt?” he suggested, and when one of his men called to him, Benton walked off, leaving Eleanor standing there, fuming.

Eleanor wasn’t inclined to be reasonable. She wanted to go to town, even if it did mean camping overnight by herself. She hitched up the wagon, put Melinda up on the seat, and then carefully climbed up by herself. She’d already loaded supplies for the trip and for the way home, and Melinda had her dolly to play with. Eleanor also had a gun with her, and she did know how to use it. The Sioux sometimes decided to be testy, and she wanted to be able to protect herself and her daughter if need be. Perhaps a night or two alone would teach Mr. Work-all-the-time that she meant what she said.

In the meantime, Benton burned his arm when a calf gave his hired hand the slip and kicked the iron. He went to the house to get Eleanor to tend his arm and found the house empty. Melinda didn’t answer, either. He looked outside, in the garden, and where the chickens were kept, and then he ran to the barn and saw the wagon was gone as were the horses. Benton cursed loudly, his burn forgotten, and had his men mount up. He had to find his wife, and fast.

Eleanor knew she was being followed, and she honestly didn’t know what to do. If she stopped they could overtake her. If she tried to turn around and head back to the ranch, she would have to ride through them. The worst part of it, she didn’t know who was following her. She wouldn’t have known if Indians were there unless they came at her. So, who could it be, and what did they want?

Suddenly, three men came racing up behind her, and she slapped the reins against the horses’ flanks, trying to hurry them along. When that didn’t work, she took out her gun and pointed it at them. They slowed down and finally stopped. Eleanor didn’t recognize them, and she didn’t like their looks.

“Where you goin’ in such an all-fired hurry, ma’am? You and your little girl, there?”

“That is none of your concern. What do you want?” she asked sharply.

“Well, I like that. I really do. You comin’ right to the point thataway. We want you. I figure when we get done with you, we can sell you to some prospector for a good price. I know I can find someone to buy your little girl. She’s really purty, just like you. Now, if you cooperate real good, she won’t get hurt none. Climb on down out of that wagon.”

Eleanor did not hesitate. She shot him clean off his horse.

The other two men were shocked, and then enraged.“You done shot Wilbur! Wilbur! Are you dead, Wilbur?”

“You’re gonna pay for that!” the other man said, riding his horse closer to her. Eleanor took the whip and started slashing at him, and then there was a shot and he hit the ground. The third man took out his gun to shoot Eleanor, but his shot went wild when he was shot, too.

Eleanor was relieved to see Benton come riding, until she saw the expression in his blue eyes. He was beyond furious. “Do you understand now why I do not want you to try and drive to town by yourself? You are fortunate that I came to the house and discovered you gone.” He tied his horse to the rear of the wagon, and then climbed on the wagon seat, took up the reins, and turned the wagon toward home, his hands following behind.

When they arrived at the house, Eleanor was fuming mad. “You could have asked me if I was all right, Benton Graves, but no, all you can do is scold.”

“It’s not all I can do,” he said, taking her inside the small house. He told Melinda to go and play in the loft with her dolls, and once she was safely up the ladder, he pulled Eleanor over to their bed, where he took a seat, and then hauled her over his knee. He wasn’t rough with her; he knew of the child she carried, but he pushed up her skirts, bared her butt, and started spanking her with all of the frustration he felt. She could have been killed, and so could Melinda! He scolded her and asked her if buying yard goods was worth risking their daughter’s life.

“No! I just needed to get away from here for a while! Can’t you understand that? There are no women here to talk to, and you work so much you are dead tired and go right to sleep after you eat. I need people, Benton!” she said, bursting into tears.

“You need a good whaling, and that is what you are gonna get!” Benton was true to his word. He picked up her hairbrush and gave her a spanking his old granny would have been proud of. When he was finished, he lifted her to her feet, and then he marched her to the table, pulled out a chair and sat her down with a painful thud to her backside. “If you act like a child, I will treat you like a child.” He got paper, a bottle of ink, and a pen, and said, “You sit here and write about what almost happened to you today. I want you to think. I want you to be very afraid. If your attitude isn’t changed by this evening, you’ll get another good spankin’ to go with this one.” He turned and stomped out of the house.

Instead of writing what he told her to write, she wrote him a letter telling him she was leaving him and taking Melinda with her and going back home to her parents’ residence in Ohio. She waited until he found the time to take her to town, and while he was in the livery looking at some new harnesses, she caught the stage out of town, leaving the letter on the bed in their hotel room.

Benton shook his head. That morning was the last time he’d seen her. He had too damn much pride to go after a woman who didn’t want to be married to him. It never occurred to him, however, that his own daughters wouldn’t be happy to see him. The secretary got his attention and told him that Mr. Smith would see him now.

Benton came straight to the point, told things clearly and concisely, and asked the man point-blank if he had a chance in court. Mr. Smith was positive that he could get his girls, so Benton agreed to sue one Claudia Davies for custody. When he was done there, he found a telegraph office to send word to the ranch that he would be gone a while longer than he planned. If Ellie were still alive, he would spank her again. As it was, he would like to give that redheaded friend of hers a good tanning, too!

* * *

Claudia cursed when the legal papers arrived. She wasn’t shocked, but her attorney was positive the judge would rule in her favor. She went to visit him once again, and felt confident that Benton Graves would be shown out of town. Still, she would rather he had given in gracefully rather than put the girls through an ugly trial. They would both be called upon to testify as to their wishes in the matter, and both girls steadfastly claimed they wished to stay with their Aunt Claudia. They did not want to go and live in the wild territory of Wyoming.

The day of the hearing arrived, and they dressed properly to go before the judge. Claudia smiled happily when she realized that Judge Aloysius Brandenberry was going to preside over the case. She had known him since she was a small child, and he would be fair. He would see to it that the girls remained with her.

“I am aware that this hearing is over custody of the Graves’ children. Mrs. Eleanor Graves gave custody to Miss Claudia Davies. After an absence of over twelve years, Mr. Benton Graves is here to take his daughters home with him. Is this correct?”

“Yes, your honor,” both attorneys answered.

“Very well, Mr. Smith, state your case.”

“Your Honor, I think the two little girls should leave the courtroom during the proceedings.”

“Absolutely not!” Melinda stated, glaring daggers at him. “This hearing concerns Rachel and me, and we will hear every word. We warn you, we will not listen to any derogatory remarks about our mama.”

The judge smiled when Mr. Smith looked at Melinda in shocked disbelief when she spoke in that manner to him. It was not usual, nor was it considered the thing for children, especially a little girl, to speak so frankly! “Miss Graves is correct. Let her hear what you have to say on behalf of her father.”

“I want to speak for myself,” Benton said, getting to his feet. “Your Honor, Eleanor did not discuss leaving with me, but instead, left me a note telling me she did not wish to live with me any longer. She hated Wyoming; hated being lonely for other women. She didn’t give me a chance to make things right. She simply left and took Melinda with her, and she had Rachel once she reached here. I wrote to her monthly; she never answered my letters. When I learned of her death – only because I needed to sign a paper before the house could be sold – I wrote to my daughters and told them I was coming to get them. I told them to be packed and ready to go. When I arrived at Miss Davies’ home, she refused to let them come with me, and had brainwashed them to tell me no. They are my daughters. Their mama is dead. I want the chance to raise them, to know them, to love them. I can’t do any of that if they stay here with that woman.”

“Your honor, I object. There is no need to call my client names.”

“She is a woman, at least the last time I looked, Barney. Hush now. Anything more, Mr. Graves?”

“No, sir. Not yet, anyway.”

“Good. Sit down and I will let Miss Davies refute that.” When Benton just looked at him, he said, “I’ll let her tell her side of it.”

“Yes, sir,” Benton agreed, and then took his seat.

“I did not plan to speak; however, I will say that Eleanor wished for me to raise the girls. I have known them since she came home from the west. Eleanor hated it out there, and she said that Mr. Graves was a rough man. I took that to mean he hit her.”

“I spanked her on her butt. She almost got herself killed, and Melinda, too. She did a fool thing, behaved like a child in need of discipline, and that is what I gave her. She had it comin’ to her.”

“Oh!” Melinda suddenly said, looking at him in sudden recognition. “I remember now. The bad men were going to hurt us. Mama had to use her gun. You sent me upstairs, but I came down and saw you spanking Mama. I went back up to the loft because I didn’t want you to spank me too!” Melinda said.

“That was the first and only time I ever raised a hand to Ellie. I loved her a lot, and that didn’t change. It was her choice to leave. I figured it had to be her choice to come home. She never wanted to. I didn’t expect her to poison you girls against me, however.”

“She didn’t. She didn’t speak of you at all, and we never asked her. It upset her when we tried to talk to her about you.”

“Now, that is a real shame, darlin’,” the judge told Melinda. “Miss Davies, do you have anything else?”

“Yes, your honor. I have a legal document granting me custody. I am not going to let these girls go with that man. They know no one out there, and they don’t even know him! I must insist they stay with me. I am the better person to raise two girls alone. Here in Dayton they have opportunities they can’t have out there.”

“Out there they have a father.” Benton Graves stated firmly.

“Anything else that I have not heard? Good. Good. Good. We’ll take a two hour recess to have lunch. Return by two o’clock this afternoon and I’ll have my ruling. In the meantime, I think it would be grand if you joined Miss Davies and the girls for lunch, Mr. Graves. I think you need to get to know each other a bit better. I will ask questions about your lunch when we reconvene, and believe me, none of you want to be held in contempt of court.

“All stand,” the bailiff muttered as the judge rose and walked into his chambers.

“Do we have to take him to lunch, Aunt Claudia?” Rachel demanded.

“Yes, Rachel. You have to have lunch with me; you heard the judge. Where would you like to eat?” Benton asked. “I don’t know this town the way you do. What do you girls want for lunch?”

“If you knew us better, you would know that we like to take lunch at the counter in the drug store just around the corner,” Rachel answered.

“No, dear. Stoneman’s would be more appropriate for what the judge wanted. You can’t talk to your father sitting at a lunch counter.”

“I don’t want to go there, Aunt Claudia!” Rachel folded her arms across her chest.

“Very well, dear. You may remain here and the three of us will go to Stoneman’s,” Claudia answered and then started walking briskly. She was out of the courtroom before Rachel called to her to wait a moment.

Benton was impressed in spite of himself. He felt the girl needed a smart swat on the backside, but Claudia handled the tantrum without a bit of fuss. They reached the restaurant in short order, and Benton was thankful for the glass of water put before him. “Order what you want,” he gruffly instructed.

“We always do!” his older daughter said sarcastically.

“It isn’t polite to order whatever you want until you are given the go ahead to do so, Melinda. It would be embarrassing if your father did not have enough money to pay the bill because you thought only of yourself. This is true with young men as well. They tend to make less money, and perhaps ordering a sandwich and a lemonade would suit better than an entire meal.”

“Did you ever do that, Aunt Claudia?” Melinda asked.

“No. My mother taught me better manners than to do that.” Claudia looked at Benton as if to say, so there!



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