The Ballad of Emma O'Toole

By: Elizabeth Lane


Park City, Utah Territory, April 1886

“Emma, wake up! Billy John’s been shot!”

The pounding on the lean-to at the back of the boardinghouse jarred Emma O’Toole awake. She jerked upright in the darkness, her heart slamming.

“Open the door!” She recognized the voice now. It was Eddie McCoy, one of the miners who bunked upstairs and took his meals in the dining room where she worked. But what was that he was saying about Billy John? Fear for her sweetheart had her scrambling off her thin straw mattress. She lifted the latch with shaking fingers. A blast of wind swept into the tiny space, almost ripping the door from her hand.

“You got to come now. He’s hit bad, askin’ for you.”

Emma was already jamming her bare feet into boots and reaching for a shawl to fling over her flannel nightgown. This had to be some kind of awful mistake. How could anything bad happen to Billy John Carter, the only boy who’d ever loved her?

“Where is he?” she managed to ask.

“Crystal Queen Saloon. Some slick gambler done it. Bastard claimed Billy John was cheatin’ at cards. Hurry!”

She followed Eddie, bracing into the wind as she stumbled through ruts where the lumbering ore wagons had passed. From the sprawl of Chinese huts in the gulch below, the rising odors of cabbage, soy vinegar and incense mingled in a sour stench that touched off ripples of nausea in her stomach.

Just that morning, she’d told Billy John she was with child. Kissing her, he’d promised to marry her the next day and make a home for her and their baby. Pretty words, but she’d seen the flash of desperation in his pale eyes. Supporting a wife and child would take money. And apart from the small pouch of silver he’d scratched out of his mountainside claim, Billy John scarcely had a cent to his name.

That would explain the card game. But when it came to gambling, Billy John was no better than a lamb asking to be fleeced. What an innocent! When she found him, she was going to give him such a piece of her mind…

Emma stumbled to her knees as cold reality struck home. The father of her unborn child could be dying. By now, he could even be dead.

The miner helped her stand. Looking ahead, she saw that they’d reached the upper end of Main Street. Even at this late hour, the saloons were teeming. With the discovery of silver in the hills above Park City, gamblers and shysters had come flocking like buzzards to a dead mule. Night and day they plied their sleazy trade, robbing honest men of their hard-earned treasure. And now one of them had shot her darling Billy John.

The Crystal Queen—a dingy gambling den, far less grand than its name—was in the second block. People swarmed around the door, craning their necks to see inside. Someone spotted Emma. A shout went up. “It’s his girl, Emma O’Toole! Let her through!”

She stumbled forward as the crowd gave way. In the smoky lamplight, she could make out something—no, someone—sprawled on the floor beneath a rumpled blanket. Long, thin legs. Worn, mud-caked boots. It could only be Billy John.

He lay white and still beneath the blanket, a rolled leather coat supporting his head. She hesitated, suddenly afraid. What if she’d come too late?

“He’s alive.” The low voice, a stranger’s, spoke from somewhere beyond her vision. “He waited for you. Go to him.”

Billy John’s eyelids fluttered open. His gray lips moved, shaping her name. She pressed his cold, limp hands to her cheeks.

“You dear, crazy fool!” she murmured. “What did you think you were doing trying to gamble together a fortune? Don’t you know we could have managed somehow, as long as we had each other?”

“Too late…” He coughed weakly. “You can have my share of the claim. You and the baby. These folks here will witness to it.”

“No! It’s not supposed to be this way! We had our whole lives ahead of us, and now—” Choked with sobs, her voice trailed off.

“Promise me somethin’, Em.” His fingers gripped her hand, their sudden strength hurting her.

“Anything,” she whispered, half-blinded by tears.

“The gambler…the bastard who shot me…see that the no-account pays for what he done.”

“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I’ll see to it somehow. Oh, Billy John, don’t die! You can’t—”

“Promise me!” His eyes were smoldering. “Swear it on your mother’s grave.” He’d started coughing again.

“I swear it…on my mother’s grave!” Emma battled the urge to throw back her head and scream her anguish into the smoke-filled room.

“Em…” The coughing had left him even weaker. She could feel him going slack against her. “Em, I’m so cold…”

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