Bare knuckles brawler Ronan O’Neill makes a living with his fists as he wanders through the American frontier. But he dreams of a home, a place to call his own. A fight in a tiny Ozarks settlement brings more than he expected and he meets a widow, Jane, who offers to tend his hurts. Without Jane, he’ll never survive but she draws upon all her skills as a healer and fey ways to keep him alive. As he burns with fever and dreams of survival, he’s struck by one thought above all others – he’s come to love this woman. As he heals, he realizes he might – after so long – find his way home if they can overcome a few obstacles along the way.
Growing up in historic St. Joseph, Missouri, Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy scribbled her stories from an early age. Her first publication – a poem on the children’s page of the local newspaper – seems to have set her fate. As a full time author, she has more than twenty full length novels published along with assorted novellas and short fiction. A contributor to more than two dozen anthologies, her credits include Chicken Soup For The Soul among many collections of short fiction. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Missouri Writers Guild, and the Ozark Writers League. Lee Ann earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Missouri Southern State University as well as an Associate Degree from Crowder College. She has worked in broadcasting, retail, and other fields including education. She is currently a substitute school teacher. As a wife and mother of three, she spends her days penning stories, cooking, reading, and other daily duties. She currently makes her home in the Missouri Ozarks, living in what passes for suburbs in a small town.
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With his feet planted on the thick green grass heavy with clover, Ronan O’Neill balled his hands into tight fists and prepared to take on his opponent. Murmurs from the gathered crowd echoed in his ears, but beyond the noise he heard birds singing in the trees at the edge of the grounds. Overhead the noon sun shone down over the gathering. Somewhere Ronan caught the sweet scent of honeysuckle still in blossom in early September, stronger than his own rank stench of sweat and anxiety. No matter how many times he fought or how well he put up a mask of bravado, Ronan always tasted fear until the first punch. Then blood lust, battle instinct, rose up, and he thought about nothing else.
Just as the first contender stepped forward, Ronan saw the woman. She stood apart from the others with a worn shawl across her shoulders and her feet bare. He noticed her dark hair was tamed into a heavy braid descending past her knees. When her dark eyes met his, he noted her pretty face. Few women graced the throng with their presence, and those who did stuck close to their men. But this one stood alone. And unlike the others, she didn’t wear a sunbonnet or hat of any kind. He thought she smiled at him, a sweet, brief expression, and he inclined his head in a brief nod to acknowledge it.
Ronan turned his attention toward the man across from him. He stood more than six feet tall, several inches taller than Ronan, and his broad shoulders made him wider too. Ronan sized up his challenger and, despite the man’s size, detected softness around the man’s middle and what he thought might be weakness in his face. He could take him, he decided with confidence, but it might be difficult.
The master of ceremonies – an older gentleman, someone of importance, if his waistcoat was any indication – stood beside the two men. “Are you goin’ for blood or being knocked out cold?” he asked in an effort to determine in advance what constituted a win.
“Well, Amos, I say I’m for putting this other fella down and out,” Ronan’s opponent said.
Amos turned his gaze to Ronan, who nodded. “Aye, fair enough,” he said, aware how musical and foreign his brogue must sound to the people here. Their countrified accents were strange to his ears. Although Ronan spoke English well enough, Gaelic remained his first tongue, the one his mother whispered to soothe him as a wee wane. His father had realized English, even though it was the tongue of the British oppressors, would be a vital tool for his son’s generation.
“All right then,” Amos said. “You’ll go at it till one of you goes down and out.”
Without any further discussion, Ronan raised his fists and ducked the first attempted blow. He hammered the other man hard with a series of quick punches to the face, and as blood streamed from his rival’s nose, Ronan punched the man’s wide belly. When his challenger moaned and bent double, Ronan knew he would win this match and the prize, a five dollar gold piece. As they sparred, the crowd called out encouragement to his adversary.
“Go get him, George! Take the Irishman!”
Smirking like a fool, another shouted, “Knock him out, George!”
George rallied to their calls and battered Ronan’s face in a fierce attack. In retaliation, Ronan jabbed a finger into the soft spot at the base of George’s throat, and the man choked. Ronan thumped him hard and pummeled his head with a series of blows hard enough his hands hurt with the force of delivery. Their fight continued as they wrestled and did their best to damage each other. Ronan found his feet, and so did George. But, the larger man wavered back and forth. Ronan took him down with a series of well-aimed blows to the head and a final punch to the gut. George toppled like a felled tree and didn’t move.
Ronan, blood streaming from a dozen cuts and aching from too many blows, stood, and after a moment’s hesitation Amos declared the Irishman the winner. He handed over the five dollar gold piece, and the crowd, stirred up with the fight, quieted. Their cheers throughout the battle in George’s favor stopped when he hit the ground, and their mutterings sounded hostile to Ronan. Several men knelt down beside George, declared he was breathing, and carried him away toward town. As the crowd began to disperse, one man rushed forward with a harsh cry and a knife in his outstretched hand.
“I’ll get you for this, you sorry Irish dog!” the man shouted. “George is my kin.”
He slashed at Ronan with the blade, aiming for the chest or gut. Swift-footed, however, Ronan sidestepped the attack, so the knife sliced his outer right arm. Sharp pain burned, but Ronan did nothing. A powerful aroma of homemade corn whiskey rippled outward from George’s relative, and Ronan figured the man far too drunk to spar with. Several onlookers came out of the crowd and maneuvered the attacker away. Blood gushed from the wound. Despite the pain, Ronan did nothing but dig into his pocket for a handkerchief. He dabbed at the flow, but the rag did nothing to stem the tide.
After putting the gold piece into his inner pocket, Ronan assessed his injuries. His head pounded, standard enough after a hard fight, and his stomach muscles ached where he’d been struck. He didn’t doubt his shins would be bruised, and his left knee throbbed from a well-aimed kick. His right eye would blacken, and it swelled already, sore. Ronan’s worst wound, the knife cut, still bled, and he struggled to stop the bleeding before it made him feel faint. Alone, without any friends or kin to call his own, he couldn’t afford to be ill, and the possibility stirred his normally tranquil soul with growing anxiety. He concentrated on the task and didn’t pay any attention to his surroundings until a quiet voice said, “You’re hurt.”
Ronan lifted his head to find the woman he noticed before the fight standing at his side. At close range, he found her beautiful. Her delicate features could have been those of an expensive china doll. He could get lost in her dark eyes, so deep and filled with mystery. Her full pink lips begged to be kissed. With interest, despite his hurts, he smiled at her and said, “Aye, well, it’s never so bad. I’ll fare well enough if I stop the blood.”
“I reckon I can tend to your wounds,” she said. “I don’t have anything here, though. You’d have to come home with me.”
Not one to trust much of anyone unless they earned it, Ronan trusted her. He didn’t understand why. But his instincts did and so did Ronan. Her willingness to bring him home surprised him, though, because most women wouldn’t risk their reputation, especially not with a stranger such as him. “Aye, I will, then,” he said. “I hope home’s not far?”
“It’s a little ways,” she said. “But it’s not so far we cain’t walk it.”
Fatigue and weakness threatened, but Ronan drew on his physical strength and his stamina and determined he could make it. “Let’s go then, woman,” he said. “Before I fall down in a faint. If I’m going home with ye, I should make your acquaintance. My name’s Ronan O’Neill.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she said. “I’m Jane Allen.”
Jane took the blood soaked handkerchief from his hands and peered at the cut. From her apron pocket she took out a fresh rag and applied it. Her light touch on his arm soothed some of his uneasiness, and he didn’t protest. Nor did he object when she tied the cloth around his arm or linked her arm through his uninjured one to provide support.
“Do you live in town then, Jane?” Ronan asked. In his wanderings, he came across the small settlement, and when he heard about the chance to fight, he stayed a few days. Most of Neosho centered on the courthouse square and trailed up the hills just above town. It seemed as likely a place as any to make a little money fighting before moving on to another.
“No,” she said. “I live off yonder. It’s not far to town, and I like it fine off away from the rest. Can you make it? I sure cain’t carry you.”
“I’ll do,” Ronan said, although weakness dogged his steps.
“You’re looking peaked,” Jane commented. “Hold on, Mister O’Neill. We’re nearly there.”
If not, he’d fall on his face. Still, he somehow summoned up enough spirit to say, “’Tis Ronan, woman. There’s no Mister O’Neill here.”
“Ronan,” she said, with a hint of amusement in her voice. “Come sit a spell then, and I’ll tend to your hurts.”
Jane pushed open the cabin door and brought him inside. Her capable hands guided him to a crude bench, and he sank down onto it, grateful. Ronan swayed, and she scooted him until his back rested against the table. She removed a kettle from the hearth and poured hot water into a tin cup. He watched as she rifled through some baskets to the left of the fireplace and put something dry into the hot water. As it steeped, Jane produced some dried herbs and some cloth.
“I’ve got some willow bark steeping for tea,” she told him. “It’ll help what pains you. Let me undo this around the wound.”
Her hands were gentle as she removed the cloth tied over his cut. Although the movement sent daggers of pain through his head, Ronan twisted his head to look. It looked worse than he thought, a deep, wide slice into his flesh, but the bleeding had slacked off. Using water from the kettle, Jane washed the wound out and removed the drying blood. It hurt, but he didn’t mind. After she cleaned it, she reached into a covered bowl on the mantle and took out some short sweetening. Jane added it to the willow bark tea.
He sipped the pungent brew, glad of the sugar to temper the otherwise bitter taste. It would help, he knew from experience, but without the sweetening it would have gagged him.
As Jane washed his face, Ronan squinted out of his good eye, the left being too swollen to allow much vision at his surroundings.
While the warm willow bark tea seeped into his body, his headache diminished to a tolerable level. Jane reached for an opaque glass jar with a tight lid. Ronan watched as she brought it to the table and fished out some leeches. She handled them with care as she applied them to his black eye. So, she’s a bit of a healer, then, he thought as the cool bloodsuckers clung to his skin. The sensation made him uneasy, but he didn’t fuss knowing they could relieve the swelling.
“What else pains you?” Jane asked. “You seemed to favor your knee a bit. Is it hurt?”
“Aye,” Ronan said. “The amadon kicked me hard there.”
“Let me see it,” she said. He bent, head whirling, to roll up his pants leg. Jane made a little cooing sound of sympathy when his puffy knee emerged, and she touched it with light fingers. “Oh, it must hurt terrible bad.”
“It does,” he said, wincing.
“It’s a wonder you could walk at all,” she told him. “I’ll use leeches on it too, but first, I have some witch hazel extract.”
The faint smell of the tincture reminded him of other fights, previous injuries, but as Jane bathed first his knee then some of his other bruises, Ronan grew aware of her touch. When she ran her hands along his sides, checking for sore spots, he stiffened but not with pain. Her touch evoked feelings he’d all but forgotten, and he wasn’t sure if he liked it or not. When Jane touched the worst spots, however, he winced, and she unbuttoned his shirt without a by-your-leave.
“You’re going to bruise something awful,” she commented as she touched the worst places with her fingers. “I’ll put some witch hazel on these, too.”
She applied it with a soothing touch and one also somehow disturbing. With her body in such close proximity to his, Ronan wanted to hold her. He ached to kiss her, and his loins stirred to life, reviving passions he thought dormant or dead. Although he liked what she did very much, he wondered what kind of woman would bring a stranger home and tend him like family. And he was curious why she did.
After bathing all his bruises with witch hazel and applying leeches to his sore knee, Jane smoothed his hair away from his face. “Now,” she said. “Do you want more tea, or are you hungry?”