Mark Shannon was a man of few means. He had spent his adult life wandering from job to job, from place to place with little to no thought of financial matters. Some malicious folk would call him lazy but those who knew him true said merely that Mark Shannon was a dreamer. For his own part, Mark thought himself rich in his three daughters, each more beautiful and spunky than the last. It was for their sake that Mark left off dreaming when his wife died and tried (and mostly failed) to settle down and keep a job. For the past three years he'd done as good as he ever had, setting up a blacksmith shop and taking home more money than he invested in hopeless schemes and poker games. His girls, understanding the sacrifice their father was making, were equally devoted to him. Just that past Christmas they had pooled together what little money they could and bought Mark a fine pocket watch. With that watch weighting down his pocket, Mark Shannon could be forgiven if he thought himself a swell.
Mark would also be forgiven if among his three girls he harbored a preference for the youngest, Emma. Her sisters may have taken after Mark with his luminous eyes and his propensity for seeing a fantastic opportunity around every corner. But Emma took after their mother. She was, perhaps, plain, but with a fiery spirit that made her eyes snap. She was practical too, in a way that Mark had never mastered. Her sisters built castles in the sky, and Emma constructed earth-bound cottages no less lovely and far more attainable. Sara and Laura had plenty of beaus but were both too fickle to pick only one. Emma sat against the wall at dances. She did not flirt and she was not interested in the flashy young men with their brightly colored vests and their fancy manners.
Mark did not know then, that Emma often entertained the attentions of a local boy. They had met in the spring when daisies and sunshine had enticed Emma to take a walk north of town where the bees buzzed over the prairie wildflowers. John was coming back from hunting, his rifle in one hand, a ridiculously large rabbit in the other, a perky spaniel yapping at his heels. He was the youngest of eight children - six of which were girls. He'd gotten a reputation as a hothead and a whole lotta trouble as of late, since his brother, Bill, left for greener pastures and left the position of town bully vacant. Meeting him on a warm spring day, when his dog was eager to be made much of and John's smile was easy and wide, was enough to awaken some long dormant romance in young Emma Shannon.
John had been in awe of her since they'd gone to school together - even then she had a reputation for not taking any guff. She had been fierce and unafraid of him and his brother in the schoolyard, all but daring them to pull her braids and see what she would make of them. When he saw her in sunshine that revealed an unknown softness in her, it reached the deeply buried softness in himself and John become devoted to her high brow and freckled skin, her glittering eyes and unruly hair.
If they courted in secret, spending lazy afternoons by the brook, picnicking in out of the way places, it was not out of any idea that their feelings might meet with disapproval. It was merely that neither imagined the affairs of their hearts to be any one else's business. When fall came and John kissed her, Emma began to have dreams of her own - of a little house on a little farm with little children underfoot. At the harvest dance they danced together and the town whispered only a little for Emma's character was above reproach. Emma did not notice her father's frown and he, dear man, did not notice her radiant smile and both kept their thoughts about the evening to themselves.
Weeks passed and seeing no more of John, Mark soon forgot the dance, until one night as he was closing up shop and the boy appeared at his door. John was tall, his shoulders broad, and though he looked at his feet and fidgeted with the hat in his hands, he was still an imposing figure. He asked if he might talk with Mark and he stuttered as he spoke.
Perhaps John had expected some resistance to his suit (he would have been a fool if he didn't), but he had trusted to Mark Shannon's innately romantic nature, assuming that love would be enough to wipe out his reputation. He was wrong. Had it been Sara or Laura, Mark may have seen the poetry in it. He may have recognized that his daughter could be the salvation of the lost young man before him. But Mark wanted to protect Emma from the harshest of sufferings, the crumbling of dreams. As a man who had been disappointed more often than not, Mark looked at John and saw only the chance that his darling girl might be hurt, probably would be. John was wild, given to bouts of temper, "headed down a wrong path" the town fathers would say with gently wagging heads and hard frowns. Marriage to John Longley would mean living on the edges of respectability, bailing him out of jail when his pride overruled his discretion, and eventually burying him when his temper came up against a better man.
Mark said no, definitively, irrevocably no. John asked once and only once if there was nothing he could do to change his mind. Mark only shook his head. He watched as John's eyes turned cold and unfeeling and the boy's face seemed transformed into stone. He smirked then, and it was a tight grimace and Mark knew he'd made the right decision. They went their separate ways and Mark checked his watch to see how late he was getting home to dinner.
When Mark got home he opened the door and a tizzy of red-headed happiness launched itself into his arms. "Did you talk to John, Daddy?" Emma looked up at him with eyes that were identical to her mother's. For the first time, it occurred to Mark that his daughter and John Longley had a history he knew nothing of. He nodded brusquely at his daughter.
"You'll see no more of him, Emmy," he stated flatly, hanging his hat on the peg by the door and then looking over her head to where the table was set and her sisters sat trying to look disinterested. "Mmmm-mmm! Smells delicious in here, girls," Mark said with a grin, putting his arm on Emma's shoulders and walking with her to the table. The subject was closed.
Mark should have known his daughter better. That night she crept out of the house and ran to John's. He was standing outside, leaning against a fence and smoking. There was a look to his face that made Emma pause and he saw her then, silhouetted against the moonlight and his face softened into one she recognized. She ran into his arms and sobbed against his shoulder. He smoothed her hair and whispered confident reassurances. When she calmed down, he kissed her gently and promised they would be together.
Several days later Mark heard that John Longley had left town. Emma said nothing about it, and though she had been quieter than usual, Mark felt satisfied that her girlhood fancy had been extinguished. Word filtered into town that John had found a place working for the same man his brother, Bill, did. The man, a powerful railroad broker, was known to conduct his professional affairs beyond the tenets of the law, and the rumor was that John and Bill Longley persuaded his detractors into more favorable opinions. Their methods of persuasion were the topic of much debate across the territory, and Emma cringed at the stories. Mark heard the rumors without much surprise.
He was surprised, when Laura came to him one afternoon with the day's mail clutched in her hands. She did not like to squeal on her sister, but she'd heard enough about the Longleys to worry about Emma. If Mark had thought Emma had forgotten John, her sisters knew better. They had heard her cry before falling asleep and had seen her let a pot boil over while she stared at it, her thoughts lost to daydreams. Laura handed the letter over. The envelope was addressed in sharp, angular letters. The return address blank except for the name J. Longley.
Mark thanked his daughter and sent her on her way. He turned the thin envelope over in his hands, looking at it; he did not open it. He closed up shop early and headed home, called Emma into the sitting room and handed her the letter, staring at her sternly. She had the good sense to blush but she lifted up her chin haughtily and met his gaze, unashamed. "Read it," Mark said gruffly. Emma did not argue, but she made it clear in the tilt of her head, the intensity of her eyes, the tone of her voice that she fully felt the indignity of her father's request.
It was against her nature to be dishonest, and so she read to her father what was written, never altering a word. Her father listened numbly and then told her to go to her room. He sent Laura up behind her with a kitchen chair, and Laura spent the evening sitting outside Emma's door, embroidering and occasionally trying to speak to her little sister on the other side. Mark carefully cleaned his rifle, an old model he used for hunting, and dragged another chair onto the porch. He leaned back with his rifle on his lap, and Sara brought his dinner to him there before taking a tray up for Emma and sharing her own meal with Laura outside the bedroom door. The two of them whispered softly about the household drama, wondering what could have been in the letter and presuming it was wildly romantic. The two of them enjoyed the evening mightily, each dreaming up the best conclusion to the already eventful night. Neither of their dreams compared with the reality.
Emma was watching for him from her window at the front of the house. Her bag was packed and sat on the bed, tilted as if with anticipation towards the door. She knew her father was waiting for them, and she was prepared to ignore anything he said. She was headstrong, always had been, and when she chose to do something she never believed anyone had the power to stop her. John rode a tall gray horse and it was easy to spot its pale form against the dark night. She saw him pull up on the reigns on the other side of their fence, and she turned away from the window, grabbed her bag and threw her door open wide.
The door smacked into the wall and the sound jolted Laura awake in her chair and she made a desperate grasp at Emma's arm as her sister ran towards the stairs. Sara came out of her own room, her hair in braids, her nightgown askew, and the two of them peered down the stairs as Emma jerked the front door open and stepped out, never shutting the door behind her.
Unaware that he was expected, John left his horse at the fence line, and crept quietly through the shadows to the house. He was halfway there when the door flew open and he saw in the flickers from a kerosene lantern on the porch, Emma running towards him. He did not see Mark Shannon, he only saw a dark shadow pull her back and he heard her scream. His hand went to his hip and he held his gun ready, waiting to get close enough to see the shadow clearly before he shot.
"That's far enough!" Mark shouted when John came edging into the dim lantern light. Mark noticed the gun without much surprise, but Emma's eyes went wide. For a moment she stopped struggling and merely stared at him.
"Are you alright, Em?" John's voice was soft and gentle and as he stepped closer into the light, she saw his eyes were too.
Her voice was strong and clear, "I'm fine, John. He made me read him your letter; I'm sorry." John nodded to show he understood and stopped at the bottom of the porch stairs.
"Mr. Shannon," he said politely, as though his gun were not pointed at Mark's heart, "I've come for Emma and if she wants to go with me, there ain't no way you're stopping us."
Mark didn't budge; he just looked at his daughter; sorrow and disappointment etched in the lines around his eyes, the down-turned corners of his mouth. "Please, Daddy," Emma whispered, hating to hurt him.
He shook his head, "No, it's a mistake. I can't let you go with him, Emmy, you'll regret it, I promise you, you'll regret it."
"C'mon, Em, let's go." John stretched his empty hand out to her and Emma tore her eyes from her father's. She reached out towards him, feeling her father's grip on her arm loosen.
"No!" her father's voice was strained, harsh, and suddenly his hand closed around her arm like a vice and he jerked her back towards him. Emma was off her balance and felt herself falling back, expecting to hit her father's solid shoulder at any moment, but instead she just kept falling until she hit the floor of the porch. Her father had fallen too and she scrambled up with John's help before looking down at him.
She had not heard the gunshot, which seemed an impossibility, but she would never remember the sound. Every other moment of the night would remain as sharp and clear as it had been at the time, but never in memory or dream would she hear it. It would always come as a surprise when she looked down and saw the red stain spreading across her father's shirt.
John's arm was around her shoulders and she could feel it trembling, his other hand was sliding his gun back into its holster. "Let's go," he whispered and tried to turn her away from the sight. She saw her sisters who'd come running down the stairs, framed in the doorway, shocked and pale, their mouths hanging open, tears gathering in the corners of their eyes.
John had begun to step off the porch steps and his arm trailed across her shoulders as he went, and as if in some dance that she'd learned in a dream, she'd raised her arm and his hand followed down her shoulder and elbow and wrist until he found her hand. His fingers curled warmly around it, the trembling gone and he pulled her gently. But Emma did not move.
She stared at her father and then slowly turned to look at John. His face was different in winter starlight, sharper, harder, and the spring day they met was lost to her. She let his hand drop and fell to her knees beside her father. "Daddy?" her voice broke and she grabbed at one of his hands, holding it against her cheek.
"Em?" John stood at the edges of the light, looking at her. She looked at him without recognition. He moved closer, he made as though to touch her shoulder and she shuddered. Laura stepped out of the house and wrapped her arms around her sister, letting her cry and rocking her slowly back and forth.
John said nothing more. He ran to his horse and left. Emma watched his horse, a gray shapeless smudge against the dark night as he went and she wondered if the greater part of her heart went with him or lay bleeding beside her.