When Willa Hammer's guardian is lynched and her home burned, she finds herself heading west with teenage Charlie and Jo Bell Frank, whose down-and-out father has been killed for cheating at cards. The three are heading for the ranch of Oliver Westwood, Charlie and Jo Bell's uncle. They don't know that Oliver has died until they meet up with Smith Bowman, a former protege of Oliver's who predicts that Maud, Oliver's mean-spirited widow, won't let the young people cross her threshold. Arriving at the ranch, Willa finds Maud sprawled on the kitchen floor with a broken leg. They settle in: Charlie to become a cowboy, Jo Bell (who is beautiful, ill-tempered and foul-mouthed) to be a nuisance until she finally runs off with a man, and Willa to perform endless chores and fall in love with Smith. Smith meanwhile tortures himself and the reader with feelings of guilt over Oliver's death. Not even this frontier romance's flood of crude language can obscure the fact that Garlock's ( Glorious Dawn ) boring characters are trapped in a paper-thin plot.
The story begins with Willa Hammer barely making it out of the burning house before a mob began pelting her. It looked like the mob was ready to hang her too (her guardian had already been hanged in their yard). However, a lecherous old man saved her by helping her into his wagon.
When Willa got into the speeding wagon, she must have felt things weren't too much better; besides the old man (who expected her to sleep with him); there was a spoiled daughter (Jo Bell) and a wonderful son (Charlie), who was disliked and used by the other two.
When the old man was killed for cheating at cards, the two teens were alone. Although she wanted to get away, Willa realized it was her duty to help them get to their goal finding their uncle. A station master suggested that Smith Bowman accompany them, since he worked on Olivers ranch.
At that time, Smith was on a two-day drunk and uninterested in their problem. Reluctantly, he agrees to sober up and escort them to their uncles ranch. When they arrived, Olivers wife Maud raged against them and told them to leave. However, she was hardly in a position to argue because shed fallen and had broken her leg.
My problem with this story was that Willa seemed to be falling in love with Smith so she had somewhere to go. I felt she hadn't fallen for him from a position of strength (thus knowing it was love and not desperation) and that bothered me. Willa was alone and without resources (even her clothes were gifts from the old man). Through Willas love, however, Smith turned away from drink and became a more responsible man.
The pace of the story seemed jagged; it started at a fast clip and then slowed, sped up and slowed. Perhaps it was because there were two really unpleasant characters that made time seem to drag. The saving grace of the story was when Smith explained why he had killed a man; Willa understood. She also helped him reframe the incident in a very different way from Smiths feeling.
In spite of what I've written, I found this to be a story I couldn't put aside until Id finished it.