By Ann B.
By Ann B.
2017 Ann B. Keller
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By Ann B. Keller
Seaton gasped as she slid off the stagecoach seat and clawed her way
up from the floor of the conveyance. The stage lurched and swayed
violently over the rough road as it bounced its way toward Spencer’s
Bounty, Wyoming. The passengers began to feel like peas rattling
around in a tin can as the coach jolted over another boulder and
continued relentlessly onward.
driver, one Phinneas McGillicuddy, whipped the leather reins over the
backs of the team of horses, glancing nervously at the hills around
him. There had been talk at the last stage stop of a potential
Indian uprising in the area, and he was taking no chances. Phinneas
intended to deliver his passengers and cargo to the next town if it
killed him – and at this rate, it very well might.
cursed as he noticed another chuckhole in the road. Unfortunately,
it was too late to avoid hitting it and he dropped the front axle of
the stagecoach into the depression with a resounding crunch.
Louise Bremerton gasped in outrage. “Must we hit every bump in the
glanced over at the older woman sitting opposite her and smiled.
Louise Bremerton was a straight laced, no nonsense kind of woman with
an ample bosom and plump body encased in a blue cotton dress with
black braid accents. She ate too much, talked a great deal, and had
generally made the trip from the railhead in Cheyenne a two day
her, Mr. Bremerton sat in stoic silence. His beady gray eyes stared
out from beneath his wire rimmed glasses like a small owl. His face
was gaunt and as pale as a child’s as he smiled at Julia and rocked
against the comforting shelter of his wife’s body.
Calhoun, the only businessman among them, sat beside Julia. With
difficulty, he settled a book on his knees and once again attempted
to take notes with his pencil as the stage continued to roll toward
its destination. Mr. Calhoun was of medium height, with sandy blond
hair and a matching moustache. His attention to detail made it
difficult to maintain a conversation with him. Although several of
the passengers had tried to find out a little bit about the man, he
was surprisingly close lipped about anything that didn’t concern
last passenger in the coach was a former army scout who went by the
name of Trace Redding. He was everything that Mr. Bremerton wasn’t.
Tall and massively built, Trace’s broad shoulders dominated the
far wall of the coach and his arms seemed huge compared to those of
the diminutive man sitting beside him. The scout wore a faded blue
work shirt beneath a deerskin jacket. A dirt smeared hat that had
seen better days had been pulled low over his forehead, effectively
hiding his features from view.
Redding’s incredibly long legs were thickly corded with muscle. He
stretched them out sideways in the narrow stagecoach in an attempt to
find himself a little more room. That brought his brown boots very
close to Julia’s small black half boots. She couldn’t help but
notice the difference in the sizes of their feet.
now, her aunt Alicia was probably anticipating Julia’s imminent
arrival, doing everything she could to welcome her sister’s child
to her new life in the west. Alicia Reynolds ran a boarding house in
the modest town of Spencer’s Bounty, Wyoming, with an attached
restaurant on the first floor that served both guests and townspeople
alike. There, Julia would begin her new position as a waitress,
earning her keep and helping her harried aunt serve her customers.
remembered very little about her Aunt Alicia, but she recalled that
she was a mannish sort of woman who liked to laugh. By contrast,
Julia’s mother had seemed like a hothouse flower, too fragile and
delicate to do more than write letters, attend parties, concerts, and
plays and bat her long eyelashes at any man who chanced to glance her
of those men had become her father. Morris Seaton and his friend had
both professed to be in love with Elizabeth Reynolds and constantly
battled each other for her favor over the course of one summer.
Finally, Morris had bet his friend on the outcome of a horse race,
with Elizabeth as the prize. When Morris won the bet, the couple had
been married and Julia’s sister, Rose, had been born shortly
thereafter. Two years later, Margaret had arrived and finally Julia,
on a cool April morning that was otherwise gray and cloudy. The last
birth had been very hard on Elizabeth, however, and she had continued
to be plagued by illness until her death five years ago.
Seaton had done his best to raise the girls properly, but he was kept
pretty busy just trying to make enough money to keep a roof over
their heads and food on the table. He acknowledged that he was no
substitute for what the girls really needed – a mother. Julia
supposed it was his guilty conscience which eventually forced him to
wed less than one year after her mother’s death.
second Mrs. Seaton, one Naomi Crittenden, was harsh and strict once
she settled into the new household. Naomi was slender and as tall as
a man. Her faced seemed to be permanently pinched, as though she
found the entire world to her disliking. Her stubborn chin also
hinted at her true temperament. The woman was kind to Julia and her
sisters only when their father was around. Eventually, Morris Seaton
passed on, too, and it was then that their stepmother’s true nature
morning after their father was buried, Naomi moved the girls’
things into the servants’ quarters and ordered them to work for
their keep, just like every other member of the household staff.
Since she had no gainful employment of her own, Naomi began to sell
off some of Morris’ treasured paintings and collection of
statuettes that he’d been assembling since he was a child.
Gleefully, she pocketed the money to pay for several lavish gowns,
showing no inclination to live more modestly, now that her husband
was gone. If the girls complained about the sudden change in their
circumstances and the loss of their father’s cherished possessions,
they were punished.
the girls wrote to their Aunt Alicia appealing for her aid. When
Alicia received word of what was happening, she tried to help the
girls as best she could. She was not a wealthy woman, but she
scraped together enough money to purchase a train ticket for Rose to
come out and join her in Wyoming. Naomi had been livid when Rose
disappeared. Angrily, she lashed out at Julia and Maggie instead,
but it was worth it to know that Rose was at last free of their
a year later, Margaret left a note that she was running off with a
drummer to get married. The note was a ruse. Swiftly, Margaret
purchased a train ticket with the funds Alicia Reynolds had sent her
and joined her sister out west. Finally, it was Julia’s turn.
had received a small parcel from her aunt over a month ago and had
snatched it from the table in the front hall only moments before
Naomi would have discovered it. Julia packed only a single bag and
left for the rail station that very afternoon, purchasing her ticket
for Kansas City and gleefully leaving the city of Chicago behind.
had always wanted to be a writer or maybe a reporter for a newspaper.
So, she left behind a note indicating that she was joining the staff
at the new Kansas City Star, a newspaper that had been started only
five years before. If Naomi tried to find her, she would hopefully
go there first, but Julia had no intention of remaining in the city
however, fate had other plans. Julia became ill on the train west
and spent over two weeks in a boarding house in Kansas City. As
Julia slowly recovered, she worried that her stepmother might somehow
track her down before she could continue her journey. She was only
too happy to escape the busy city and continue west as quickly as she
could. The train had taken Julia as far as Cheyenne, but from there,
she would have to take the stage. Julia accepted the final leg of
her journey with happy anticipation.
to the relative luxury of the train, the stagecoach was almost
unbearable. There was hardly any padding on the seats and the coach
had rough springs that barely cushioned the passengers from the worst
of the bumps in the road.
addition, the interior of the stage was very small. The cramped
quarters, coupled with the pungent aroma of sweat and the din from
Mrs. Bremerton’s incessant harping, created an atmosphere of quiet
desperation. Julia couldn’t wait to arrive at Spencer’s Bounty
and be welcomed by her aunt and sisters. She anticipated her happy
reunion as she smiled out the stagecoach window.
it was only mid-morning, it was already hot. Unfortunately, the
clouds of dust rolling up from the coach wheels made opening the
flapping leather blinds an unreasonable proposition. Julia’s
traveling suit was already gritty with sand and dirt and she was a
little chagrined that her aunt would see her for the first time when
she looked so disreputable.
small cracked mirror hanging in the last stagecoach stop had shown
Julia that she was still very pale from the effects of her illness
and there were dark circles beneath her green eyes. Every bump and
jolt in the road made her increasingly nauseous. Julia fervently
hoped that she could simply have wished herself into her new home.
gasped as the coach violently lurched through a particularly nasty
bump in the road, throwing her shoulder against the wall.
Mrs. Bremerton complained. “What does that driver think we are,
we were, we’d be traveling by train or walking,” Mr. Calhoun
noted. “Would you like to walk to Spencer’s Bounty, Mrs.
be impertinent,” the other woman countered, frowning at the
dear,” Mr. Bremerton crooned, patting his wife’s arm. “I’m
sure that Mr. McGillicuddy is doing the best that he can.”
we had to come all this way to visit your mother, I’ll never know,”
Bremerton’s gray eyes widened in shock.
just turned sixty a few days ago. She’s getting up in years and I
thought we might visit her, now that we have the chance,” Mr.
wise decision, sir,” Mr. Calhoun agreed. “I lost my own dear
mother a couple of years back. I always regretted not seeing her
that one last time before she left us.”
there, dear?” Mr. Bremerton asked with a nod. “Everything will be
fine once we get there. You’ll see.”
an impossible situation,” his wife countered.
his place beside Mr. Bremerton, Trace Redding only half listened as
the plump partridge in the corner continued to complain about the
traveling arrangements. Secretly, he wouldn’t have minded if the
woman did get out and walk the rest of the way into town. In Trace’s
opinion, Mrs. Bremerton could certainly use the exercise. After
walking a couple of miles in the heat and dust, she might have a
better appreciation for what services the stage coach line did
provide. It was clear who wore the pants in the Bremerton family.
The pathetic little man seated beside him could do little more than
try to soothe his wife’s ruffled feathers.
warily eyed the merchant seated opposite him and again wondered about
the man’s true occupation. Trace had been watching Mr. Calhoun for
some time. The man appeared to be reading the same pages in his book
over and over again, and the notes he was taking looked more like
chicken scratches. The merchant had been pretty closed mouthed about
himself, too. That worried Trace as well. Most businessmen were
born talkers and Mr. Calhoun’s silence made Trace wary.
small woman seated in the opposite corner of the coach was also
rather quiet. Trace had noticed Julia Seaton when he’d stepped off
the train in Cheyenne. She looked just like one more starry-eyed
Easterner filled with a lot of dreams, but with little idea of what
it really took to live in this unforgiving land.
the years, Trace had seen dozens like Miss Seaton, greenhorn
immigrants who came west in search of a fortune in gold or silver.
After a few months of digging with nothing to show for their efforts
but aching backs and a host of blisters, their dreams began to fade.
The majority of them returned home within a year.
mountains and deserts claimed a few more lives as the desperate
prospectors ventured into the wilderness in search of prosperity and
met up with Indians or wild animals. That quickly ended their
troubles. Those men and women who stayed in Wyoming learned how to
adapt and change. Shy Miss Seaton looked as though she wasn’t
capable of anything more strenuous than a sewing bee.
chuckled to himself as the image of a group of chattering females
gathered in a frilly parlor formed in his mind. He glanced up to see
Miss Seaton staring at him with her big green eyes. As he stared
back at her from beneath the shadow of his father’s hat, she
blushed and rapidly turned her head toward the window, making Trace
grin even more.
thing was for certain, Julia sure was a pretty little thing. At her
full height, the top of Julia Seaton’s head might just have grazed
his shoulder and she had the slender build of a child. Still, there
was no denying that she was a woman. One look at her lush, full
breasts beneath the green cotton of her traveling suit had fired
Trace’s blood. Likewise, the gentle sway of her skirts as he’d
watched her walk away from the coach at the last stop had done
something queer to his innards.
supposed that was only natural, though. After six years in the army,
almost anything in skirts looked good to him and he eagerly embraced
his new civilian status. Trace had seen his share of fighting and
dying. The army relentlessly pursued the Indians as the nation
fought to open more lands to new settlers. Unfortunately, Trace had
witnessed countless massacres across several states in the region.
It was bad enough to kill Indian braves who could fight back, but the
wholesale slaughter of innocent Indian women and children
increasingly sickened him.
when his enlistment was over, Trace resigned, deciding to return to
the tiny town of Spencer’s Bounty. Many years ago, he’d left his
partner, George Linley, in charge of their mine. George had written
Trace no more than a couple of times each year, updating him on his
progress as he tunneled into the side of Red Peak Mountain. The
silver mine had produced only a modest amount of silver and a little
gold over the years. It wasn’t enough to make them wealthy, but
they wouldn’t starve either. George had faithfully deposited
Trace’s share into the town bank, where it had slowly been earning
interest while he was gone.
his share of the money, Trace intended to start a cattle ranch. The
thought of tunneling into the earth like a giant prairie dog didn’t
appeal to him. However, purchasing some land in his own name was
another issue all together. Trace had dreams about his ranch as he
lay on his bedroll at night, staring up at the stars around a glowing
campfire. He had already figured out how many head he would need to
get started. All he had to do was retrieve his money and locate a
suitable piece of property upon which to build.
again, Trace’s eyes focused on the diminutive brunette in the far
corner of the stagecoach. He took his time studying Julia as she
continued to look anywhere but at him. Her face was the color of
peaches and cream on a warm summer’s day and her green eyes
glistened like two emeralds on either side of her small, upturned
nose. Her full lips curled up slightly at the ends above her
stubborn little chin. Trace could only glimpse a few wisps of her
dark hair that curled insistently around the edges of her bonnet.
Miss Seaton seemed as out of place in the middle of Wyoming as a rose
was in the desert. What business she might have in a rough and
tumble town like Spencer’s Bounty, Trace couldn’t imagine. Trace
had grown up there and if he’d had the opportunity, he might have
asked her why she was going to Wyoming. However, in the crowded
coach, there were too many ears listening. No doubt, Mrs. Bremerton
might try to make something of his interest, so Trace wisely held his
the coach rocked forward, then back again. Trace could hear the
driver calling to the horses for greater speed.
is it?” Louise Bremerton asked and drew the curtain aside a little
to peer outside.
moment later, an arrow arced through the narrow opening and embedded
itself in the wood beside Louise’s head. Her eyes widened in
horror and she only had time for a gasp before she fainted dead away.
Mr. Bremerton exclaimed, struggling to keep his wife from tumbling
onto the floor of the coach. “Are you all right?”
down!” Trace ordered, drawing his pistol. “Everybody down!”
obediently slid off the seat and crouched on the floor of the
stagecoach. With difficulty, she helped Mr. Bremerton maneuver his
wife’s limp body down beside her own. Mr. Calhoun drew his gun as
well and he and Trace started firing at the Indians surrounding the
gun blasts were deafening inside the small conveyance and the
Indians’ war cries alarmed Julia still further. Her heart was
thundering in her chest as though she’d tried to run up a steep
hillside and Julia attempted to catch a glimpse of what was going on
outside through the shifting openings in the leather curtains.
Bremerton doffed his black bowler and frantically fanned the brim
over his wife’s face in an attempt to rouse her. Meanwhile, Julia
was half crushed beneath the woman’s inert body. She gasped as the
unconscious woman inadvertently jabbed Julia’s ribs with her elbow.
Julia struggled to shift her body away from the unconscious woman,
but Mr. Bremerton suddenly fell on top of Julia, too.
is insane!” Mr. Bremerton cried, his eyes wide with fright. “Stop
the coach. You must stop the coach!”
we do that, we’re all dead,” Trace grumbled. “Now keep your
dear. Louise? Louise, wake up, sweetheart,” Mr. Bremerton called
to her, gently patting her round cheeks.
her position half buried beneath Mrs. Bremerton, Julia thought she
heard someone groan from outside the stagecoach, then a dark shape
abruptly fell past the window.
got the driver,” Trace grimly announced.
McGillicuddy?” Mr. Bremerton gasped. “Then who’s driving the
holstered his gun and slid forward on the seat as he reached for the
do you think you’re going?” Mr. Calhoun challenged.
has to go up there and take the reins,” Trace noted.
must be insane!”
be killed for sure!” Mr. Bremerton agreed.
all be dead if I don’t. There’s a hairpin turn with a three
hundred foot drop off just before we reach town. If I don’t go up
there and slow these horses, we’ll go right over the edge,” Trace
closed her eyes, already envisioning the horses and stagecoach
plunging over the precipice, only to be crushed on the rocks below.
It would be a miracle if any of them survived the fall.
can’t go,” Mr. Bremerton protested.
Trace replied, handing the little man one of his guns. “You take
over shooting for a while.”
Bremerton reluctantly accepted the scout’s second handgun, holding
it gingerly with his thumb and one finger, as he eyed the weapon
do know how to shoot, don’t you?” Trace asked the little
I – I --” Mr. Bremerton stammered.
you?” Trace demanded.
can’t stand the sight of blood,” Bremerton finally admitted.
Calhoun and Trace exchanged a glance.
Trace growled and swung the door wide. “Try to keep them off of me
as long as you can.”
will,” Calhoun promised.
swung his body through the stagecoach door and clambered up the side
of the conveyance toward the driver’s seat. Mr. Calhoun grabbed
the door as soon as Trace had departed and pulled it closed. Calhoun
then repositioned himself in the front of the coach, trying to
provide the scout with some cover.
Bremerton finally realized he made a very good target sitting in the
front of the coach, and clambered over his wife’s body to sit in
the rear instead. His eyes were huge in his gaunt face and his hands
were shaking like those of a young girl at her first dance.
I – maybe I can help you,” Julia offered, attempting to lever the
unconscious Mrs. Bremerton off her shoulder.
thank you!” Mr. Bremerton gratefully gasped.
frowned at the little man’s misunderstanding.
Calhoun, do you have another gun?” Julia asked, choking a little on
the dust swirling up from the wheels and into the interior of the
merchant ignored her and continued to fire at the Indians surrounding
the rear of the stagecoach. He had no idea how much further it was
to the drop off that Trace had mentioned. He fervently hoped that
somehow the scout had managed to reach the reins and would live long
enough to guide them around the turn. Personally, Calhoun didn’t
think they stood a very good chance of surviving the attack, but he’d
keep up a sheltering cover of gunfire as long as his bullets held
an arrow split the gap between one of the right windows and the door
frame, embedding itself into Mr. Calhoun’s right shoulder.
hit!” Calhoun gasped, clutching at the arrow as he lowered his
smoking pistol toward the floor.
Bremerton’s eyes widened in horror as he stared at the growing red
patch on the merchant’s shoulder and arm. A moment later,
Bremerton’s eyes rolled toward the top of his head and he slumped
sideways over the rear seat, fainting at the sight of so much blood.
Julia stared at the little man’s closed eyes and glanced up
worriedly at Mr. Calhoun.
sorry, ma’am. I can’t shoot any more with this arm and I
couldn’t hit the flat side of a barn door with my left,” Mr.
Calhoun grimly apologized.
give me your gun,” Julia suggested, pushing against Mrs.
the merchant asked, frowning at the diminutive woman crouched in the
bottom of the stagecoach.
Julia Seaton didn’t look capable of firing a pistol. Calhoun had
noticed her as soon as he’d gotten onto the coach in Cheyenne. Her
rigid posture and refined manner of speaking marked her as a real
lady. All the same, Miss Seaton hadn’t fainted dead away at the
first sign of trouble and she hadn’t started screaming when the
Indians surrounded the stage. Calhoun stared at her in confusion.
Indians narrowed the distance to the coach, now that no one was
shooting at them any longer. Two of them prepared to leap onto the
rear and side of the conveyance.
lift her off me and I can try to help all of us,” Julia emphasized.
Mr. Calhoun questioned incredulously.
can try,” Julia admitted. “Do you have a better idea?”
his perch in the driver’s seat, Trace managed to shoot one of the
Indians trailing the stage, but the other ducked out of sight. He
managed to hit a few more before he finally ran out of bullets. He
certainly didn’t have any time to reload now.
Trace could see the drop off up ahead, just an open space in between
two hills, with nothing but clear blue mountain air to greet them if
they left the road. Trace knew he had to slow the team down or
they’d all sail over the cliff and be crushed on the rocks below.
The trouble was, if he slowed down, the Indians would be able to
climb onto the top of the stage and he’d be forced to abandon the
reins to defend himself.
some strange reason, Calhoun had stopped shooting, too. Trace
hunched over violently as one of the Indians closest to the rear
wheels attempted to shoot him with an arrow. He gnashed his teeth in
frustration and prayed for a miracle.
now, the ladies were probably curled up in a dead faint on the floor
of the coach or screaming their lungs out hysterically. If Calhoun
were injured or dead, that left Mr. Bremerton as the only man capable
of mounting a defense against the angry natives. Trace had his
doubts that the little man had ever touched a gun in his life.
the chance that Trace might not make it out of this battle had no
sooner crossed his mind, than Calhoun suddenly started shooting
again. Trace thanked God for his aid. Maybe the merchant had just
been reloading or had some difficulty repositioning himself inside
the vehicle. The shooting was now coming from the other side of the
coach, but Trace grinned as he glanced back and saw that the three
Indians closest to the stage were now dead. Their horses were slowly
drifting back into the cloud of dust and stones being kicked up by
the coach and horses. As the other Indians also fell back from the
conveyance, Trace finally risked slowing the vehicle, as the open air
at the drop off loomed frighteningly closer.
last desperate attempt to halt the vehicle, one of the Indians raced
up along the right side of the stage, the opposite side from where
someone was shooting. The brave flung himself through midair,
landing with a thump on the side of the coach. The Indian’s hand
grasped one of the luggage racks on top, arresting his fall.
one leg up onto the window frame, the brave started to climb.
Suddenly, something very hard struck the top of his moccasined foot
and he winced in pain. The Indian drew his knife and thrust aside
the curtain to deal with this new threat, only to find himself facing
the business end of a rifle. A second later, one of the passengers
pulled the trigger and the Indian dropped to the ground, where he was
crushed by the rear wheel.
hauled back on the reins now, bracing his legs on the footrest for
better leverage as the precipice rushed up to meet him. He turned
the horses’ heads hard right to follow the rough road down into
a moment, the coach seemed to be airborne. Trace’s gut tightened
with dread as he thought he might have miscalculated the turn and
they’d wind up on the rocks some three hundred feet below.
Miraculously, the front wheels of the stage landed mostly on the
roadway and the team pulled the rest of the vehicle forward onto the
dirt as well. The coach proceeded down into the valley as the
Indians wisely turned back. The travelers were finally safe.
a few of the townspeople of Spencer’s Bounty had heard the shooting
and several men came out on horseback to offer what assistance they
could. The fight was over, of course, but Trace grinned when he saw
them, much reassured by their support.
finally brought the stage to a dusty halt in front of the Silver
Crown Hotel. The horses were in a lather and their sides heaved with
each breath as Trace scrambled down the side of the coach. The
townspeople surged forward to assist the frantic passengers.
out of the stage door was Mr. Bremerton, his face as pale as a ghost
as he blinked at the people around him and pushed his wire rimmed
glasses up his nose. Next came his wife, who was still a little
confused from the ordeal. She weakly collapsed into the men’s arms
as they hauled her to safety.
a brief discussion inside the coach, Mr. Calhoun descended, strongly
favoring his right arm, which was bleeding profusely all the way down
to his hand. Somebody called for the doctor as Trace helped the man
down, thanking him for his assistance in the Indian attack.
Miss Seaton brought up the rear. Julia swayed a little as she paused
at the top of the steps, peering down at the people surrounding the
stage. She searched frantically for some sign of her sisters or her
Aunt Alicia, but didn’t see them in the crowd.
was feeling increasingly nauseous as the reality of what she’d just
done began to sink in. Julia had never killed a man before today.
It was all very well to practice on targets behind the barn, but she
knew she’d killed at least seven or eight Indians today. The
thought of taking a life, a decision that should best be left to God
in her opinion, jolted her consciousness like a hammer striking an
anvil. Julia was shaken and a little uncertain of her feelings. The
front of the hotel tilted dizzily for a moment as Julia’s legs
crumpled beneath her.
caught the small woman as she fell, cradling Julia close and bearing
her into the hotel in his strong arms.
Trace Redding!” the hotel desk clerk cried when he saw him.
she hurt?” one of the ladies asked.
think she just fainted,” Trace replied.
– I can walk,” Julia mumbled, clutching her swirling head.
heck you can,” Trace grumbled. “A room?”
three,” the desk clerk offered. “Second door on your right past
the top of the stairs.”
only half heard the citizens clustered around him as he started for
the steps at the rear of the hotel lobby. Everyone seemed to be
talking at once. He could see Mr. and Mrs. Bremerton seated on the
red velvet settee by the front windows as they relayed their version
of the Indian attack. Now that they were safe in town, both of them
seemed quite animated and Trace shook his head in wonder.
Julia pleaded once again, her fingers grazing the top of Trace’s
broad shoulder. “I’m fine, really.”
let Doc Knowles decide that,” Trace firmly told her. “Somebody
send for Doc Knowles!”
passed away this past April. It’s Doc Davis now, but he’s been
sent for,” one of the men assured him.
his burden, Trace mounted the steps with ease. He cradled Julia
close as he turned at the top of the landing and strode purposefully
down the dimly lit hallway. The tiny woman weighed little more than
a child. Trace wasn’t even breathing hard by the time he reached
his destination and flung open the door to her room.
he set Miss Seaton on the side of the bed. A few of the ladies
clustered around Julia, all of them asking her questions and gasping
at what she must have gone through that morning.
only caught a glimpse of her pale face before he left the room, but
the image remained fixed in his mind as he started down the hallway.
Her green eyes had looked dark and haunted, as though she’d seen
more death today than she cared to. Still, Julia Seaton hadn’t
fainted or gotten hysterical. Trace had to give her that much.
Sheriff met Trace at the bottom of the steps and warmly shook his
You’ve had a busy morning, I hear,” the Sheriff noted.
might say that,” Trace replied with a grin.
Ben Whitaker was on the lee side of forty, with salt and pepper hair
and bushy sideburns that made him resemble a large housecat. But
there the resemblance ended. Beneath his tan shirt, his shoulders
and arms were muscular and his quick blue eyes missed little as he
glanced around the lobby teaming with anxious citizens.
had known Trace Redding before he joined the Army, when he and his
father had come west trying to strike it rich. Ransom Redding had
lost a wife and two daughters to influenza. The two men had left
their pain and bitter memories behind them when they’d staked a
claim on a fine piece of property only a couple of miles out of town.
The Reddings had built a cabin on the rise beside the river and had
done some placer mining for a while.
Ransom was still hurting inside. More often than not, Sheriff
Whitaker had hauled him home slung over his saddle on Saturday nights
when the man was too drunk to risk his riding home alone. Trace had
endured his father’s temper, too, and felt the sharp bite of the
strap on his young shoulders more than once. Ben wouldn’t have
known that, either, except that Doc Knowles had told him on the night
that they found old man Redding lying face down in the creek just
outside of town.
and angry, Trace Redding had run off to join the army, leaving his
best friend and partner, George Linley, in charge of the property.
George had immediately switched tactics, deciding to tunnel into the
mountain instead and had apparently done well enough over the years.
was little remaining of the young man of twenty who had left
Spencer’s Bounty so many years ago. Trace had returned with a
maturity beyond his years, standing a good head taller than what Ben
remembered. His body had filled out nicely, too, and his shoulders
and arms were broad and corded with muscle above a waist that was
tight and slender.
sported a well used pistol on his right hip. The handle of what must
be a nasty looking hunting knife peeped above the top of his left
boot, providing him with two formidable weapons. Trace stood before
Ben now with his long legs spread wide. The Sheriff could see the
fabric of his trousers pull taut over his strong thighs. Trace
seemed completely unafraid.
grinned up at the younger man, well pleased by what he saw.
there was anyone who could have brought that stage in today, it would
have been you,” Sheriff Whitaker noted with approval. “Welcome
Ben,” Trace replied with a grin.
casualties?” Ben asked.
driver’s dead. Calhoun took an arrow to his shoulder and is
bleeding like a stuck pig. How he ever kept shooting with his arm
like that, I’ll never know.”
me through, please,” young Doc Davis insisted, shouldering his way
through the crowd of people gathered near the base of the stairs.
and Sheriff Whitaker cleared a small path for the physician and he
promptly climbed the steps to tend to the wounded.
were lucky today,” Sheriff Whitaker replied. “Red Tail’s
braves have been doing a lot of raiding lately.”
Tail?” Trace gasped. “I’m surprised the chief is still alive.
He must be over seventy now.”
he’s losing control of the young men. There isn’t much glory in
remaining peaceful, I suppose,” the Sheriff noted. “Feel up to a
chuckled. “I could sure use one.”
Alicia Reynolds heard that her niece, Julia, had finally come, she
was delighted. However, when the circumstances of her arrival became
clear, Alicia threw off her apron and hurried down to the hotel.
Julia’s sister, Rose, stopped making the beds upstairs and ran to
fetch her sister Maggie, who almost tumbled out of the barn loft in
her haste to join her sister. The three women descended upon the
Silver Crown Hotel like a strong wind before a storm and many a man
quickly cleared a path for the eager females as the Reynolds
entourage hurried for the stairs.
Julia, darling, are you all right?” Aunt Alicia cried, pushing
past Mrs. Lewis and her daughter as she threw open the door to the
hotel room and ran to embrace her niece.
Alicia! Rose, Maggie!” Julia gasped, tears of joy welling in her
eyes as they embraced her one by one.
might have known you’d find a way to make an entrance,” Rose
quipped, grinning at her younger sister.
pish tosh! Don’t listen to her, Julia,” Maggie grumbled. “She’s
not!” Rose angrily countered.
too!” Maggie fired back.
Lewis chuckled at their exchange and wisely steered her daughter
toward the door.
we’ll just let you ladies get reacquainted,” Mrs. Lewis advised
and pulled her daughter from the room as she closed the door behind
Alicia smothered Julia in a warm, soft embrace and her arms reached
for her siblings. The older woman smelled of soap and rose water and
Julia fondly recalled the mingled scents from her childhood.
can’t believe it!” Alicia gasped. “All of you here together at
last. Let me look at you.”
Rose slid her arm around Julia’s slender shoulders and Maggie gave
her a hug from the other side of the bed. Although they were
definitely sisters and there was a resemblance in their faces, they
were as different as any three women could be.
was a real beauty, with long blonde hair as straight as a poker and
large blue eyes the color of cornflowers. She was tall for her age
and slender, too, although she ate nearly everything that wasn’t
tied down and had a tendency to put on airs, especially in front of
contrast, Maggie was quiet and shy. She reminded Alicia of a small
brown mouse as she darted silently from task to task, never
complaining as her sister did and making doubly certain that her aunt
never had the opportunity to regret sending for her. Maggie was a
little taller than Julia, with brown eyes in an elfin face and a head
of chocolate brown hair that twisted and curled like a pig’s tail
when wet. She was also a little on the plump side and had the sweet
tooth of a starving six-year-old boy.
on the other hand, seemed to be a mixture of the two girls. She
wasn’t an incredible beauty, nor was she shy and bookish, either.
In many ways, Julia was the leader of the three, the brave one who
often accepted the punishment meted out to the other two girls and
the one who had first proposed the elaborate plan to bring them all
out west to safety. Alicia had been astonished by some of the tall
tales the other two girls had told her and she was really looking
forward to getting to know her youngest niece better.
shook her head as tears of gratitude welled in her eyes.
Reynolds was about as tall as she was wide, with a set of mannish
shoulders and a pair of large hands that would have been better
suited on a road mender. She had a large bosom and a round waist
that only indented slightly before her skirts blossomed over her
broad hips and plump limbs. Her face was nicely rounded, too, and
her blue eyes were bright with tears as she stared at the three
lovely ladies in front of her.
be to God, you are all here at last! And look at you. You’re all
so beautiful,” Alicia sighed.
you,” Rose quickly replied, smoothing her slender hand over her
Maggie asked hopefully, blushing like a school girl.
Julia laughed. “Aunt Alicia, I think you need glasses,” she
quipped, frowning at the older woman.
Rose gasped in astonishment. “What a horrid thing to say.”
covered with dust and blood and I’ve been traveling for days,”
Julia pointed out.
I know all of that,” Alicia acknowledged, patting Julia’s pale
hand. “But underneath, you’re all very lovely. And you’re
together at last.”
grinned as she hugged her sisters. “We are, at that.”
you feeling unwell, Julia, or are you able to go downstairs? We can
go home now, if you’d like,” Alicia suggested. “I confess when
I heard you’d finally arrived and had been the victim of an Indian
attack as well, I simply dropped everything.”
like that very much,” Julia readily agreed.
Then let’s take you to your new home,” Alicia decreed.
was ecstatic. It had been years since the girls had been together.
Even though they sometimes fought like a group of wildcats, they were
still very close. Julia had missed her sisters terribly.
followed her aunt out of the room, her posture proud and her head
held high, while Maggie clung to Julia’s arm, smiling down at her
with glee. As they descended the hotel steps, the women could see
the crowd gathered around the Bremertons, who were once more
explaining how they had heroically fended off the Indian attack.
Julia was too weary to correct their statements and quietly followed
her family outside.
Alicia led the way to the stagecoach, where one of the men located
and tossed down Julia’s bags. Picking up Julia’s bag, the ladies
walked deeper into town toward the boarding house where they all
lived and worked.
they walked along the rough planking in front of the stores, Julia
noted the general store on the opposite side of the street and the
local bank a few doors down from that. There was a dressmaker’s
shop, a barber shop and the livery tucked behind the main line of
buildings on their side of the street, too. The assayer’s office
sat shoulder to shoulder with the Sheriff’s office and a lawyer’s
office on the other side, near City Hall.
small church had been built at the very end of the street and the
road branched out on either side of the building, one track leading
toward the mountains to the east of town and the other to the west.
The church was among the worst maintained structures in town, which
Julia thought said a lot about the morals of the men and women of
Spencer’s Bounty. The white paint was peeling badly and several
pieces of siding needed to be replaced. In addition, there was a
nasty patch of roof near the steeple in front that no doubt leaked
water like a sieve whenever it rained.
here we are!” Rose happily announced.
wasn’t certain exactly what she’d been expecting her new home
would look like when she’d started her journey west. However, it
certainly wasn’t the dilapidated structure before her eyes. The
boarding house was a large building with a wide porch that was
missing two support posts. It had cracked and peeling red paint on
the wooden siding and several missing floorboards on the boardwalk.
What black accent paint remained around the windows was also curled
and fractured like ice on a spring pond. One of the panels on the
front door had been patched with two sides from a cheese box and four
badly bent over nails.
eagerly led Julia inside the front hallway. Julia tried to smile for
her family’s benefit as she glanced around the dimly lit rooms. On
the right was a front parlor of sorts, with a large black cast iron
stove for heating and faded pink wallpaper in a small floral pattern.
There was a threadbare Oriental rug on the floor. A settee and two
arm chairs had been drawn up around it, all of which had seen better
days. The windows were dingy and Julia saw the cobwebs near the
entry sway in the breeze as Alicia closed the front door and gestured
for them to continue into the restaurant.
passed the darkened stairway leading to the second floor and followed
her aunt and sisters into the eating area, where several patrons were
consuming plates of eggs, sandwiches, and steak. Although the bare
plaster walls sadly needed a coat of paint and the rough wood floor
could have used a good sweeping, the enticing aroma wafting from the
kitchens gave Julia a clue why her Aunt Alicia had managed to make
enough money to send for the three girls. The service in the small
restaurant seemed to be prompt and the food was excellent.
smells wonderful!” Julia gasped.
Alicia smiled with pleasure. “I’m glad you approve.”
can’t imagine how busy we are on a Saturday night,” Rose
explained. “The miners come into town and they sometimes get a
little rowdy. Still, there are times when they have to stand outside
for a while just to get a table.”
right, girls. I’m sure Julia will have plenty of time to get
acquainted with everything once she recovers a little,” Alicia
but I’m ready to help today, if you need me,” Julia offered.
You can help with lunch,” Rose agreed.
She’ll do no such thing!” Alicia countered. “I want you to go
upstairs and wash some of that dust off of you. Then you can come
down and taste some of the food yourself. You’ll begin your duties
tomorrow, if you feel recovered enough by then.”
sure I’ll be fine,” Julia assured her aunt.
Now, off with you two. Back to your duties. I’ll take Julia
upstairs and get her settled in a room.”
turned toward the sideboard and retrieved an apron, which she quickly
secured around her waist and Maggie disappeared behind the door
leading into the kitchen.
almost tripped on a rough place in the steps as her aunt led the way
upstairs. She was breathing a little hard when she finally reached
the summit and hefted her bag onto the landing.
front six rooms are for guests and the back three are for us. The
fourth room is for storage, but we’ve managed to put your bed in
there, too. I hope you don’t mind?” Aunt Alicia asked.
no. I’m sure it will be fine,” Julia assured her.
did her best to hide her dismay when her aunt flung open the door and
Julia peered inside the room. The majority of the room had indeed
been converted into a storeroom for linens and half broken furniture.
A small single bed had been added to the plethora of linens and
boxes cluttering every available surface and there was a small
washstand with a cracked and chipped basin and a white pitcher near
the window. A small chest of drawers with the bottom drawer missing
Julia could use for her clothes and a couple of nails had been
inaccurately pounded into the wall for her to hang up a dress or two,
if she so desired.
know it’s not much, Julia, but you’ll find that we live pretty
simply here,” her aunt apologized. “I had such dreams of fixing
up the place, but I wanted to get you girls out here with me first.
Now that you are here, of course, maybe we can start turning things
around a little bit, hum?”
smiled and nodded. “I’m sure I’ll be very comfortable. Thank
Now take your time and relax for a while if you wish. Then, when
you feel up to it, come down and join us for lunch. All right?”
will,” Julia promised.
kept smiling as her aunt closed the door to her room and continued
down the hall. Then Julia shook her head and dumped her bag onto the
small bed in the corner.
have I gotten myself into?” she wondered aloud, as she glanced
around the room.
followed Sheriff Whitaker back to his office and helped him to
complete a report on the Indian attack. The Bremertons had taken a
room at The Silver Crown Hotel and seemed none the worse for wear,
although Mrs. Bremerton was still complaining and threatening to file
a complaint with everyone from the stage line to the President of the
United States himself.
Seaton’s family had apparently come to collect her. Trace and the
Sheriff were both waiting for Doc Davis to give them a report on Mr.
Calhoun’s condition. When the physician finally arrived, they
eagerly awaited his diagnosis.
Davis could not be rushed and the young man took his time, pouring
himself a cup of coffee from the Sheriff’s proverbially hot coffee
pot on the small woodstove in his office. The doctor was a handsome
young man, who had only been practicing for six years before coming
out west. He was of medium height and build, with dark curling hair
that had a tendency to hang over his forehead a little and small wire
rimmed spectacles. Nevertheless, the eyes behind those glasses were
quick and intelligent. The Sheriff sometimes wondered whether the
physician would have made a good lawman, as his eyes rapidly darted
around the small office.
Doc?” the Sheriff prompted. “How is Mr. Calhoun?”
live, but he’s lost a lot of blood. There was considerable damage
to the muscles, tendons and ligaments in his right shoulder, too, but
I’ve done what I can to save his arm,” Doctor Davis replied.
bad?” Sheriff Whitaker inquired.
shook his head at the disappointing news.
too bad. I don’t know Calhoun very well, but I owe him my life.
So does everybody else on that coach,” Trace admitted. “If he
hadn’t kept firing like he did, there would be a lot more bodies
lying up there than just the driver’s.”
Davis’ eyes narrowed as he stared suspiciously at Trace.
I understand you to say that Mr. Calhoun continued to fire his pistol
after he was wounded?” the physician asked.
did,” Trace affirmed.
Doc Davis mused aloud, his thoughts already far away.
is it, Doc?” the Sheriff asked.
Oh, forgive me, gentlemen, but I’m afraid if someone was shooting
from the stagecoach, it certainly wasn’t Mr. Calhoun,” the
physician explained. “In his condition, I doubt that he could have
picked up and held a pencil, much less a revolver.”
he’s one of those men who can shoot with both hands?” Trace
maybe he’s abber – I mean, alti --”
Doc Davis supplied.
it,” the Sheriff confirmed with a nod.
Davis shook his head.
don’t think so. I had hoped that if he had some acuity with his
left arm, it might prove helpful during his recovery, but I’m
afraid that’s not the case,” the physician explained.
if he didn’t do the shooting, who did?” the Sheriff demanded.
mind was working furiously. The next logical candidate was Mr.
Bremerton, but the man clearly didn’t know very much about
firearms. Trace doubted he could have managed so many lucky shots in
a row. When Trace had left the coach, Mrs. Bremerton had been
collapsed on the floor in a dead faint and was still a little woozy
by the time they’d rolled into town. That left Miss Seaton.
Trace mused aloud, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “It can’t be.”
Seaton?” the Sheriff asked.
not possible. You’ve seen the woman, Sheriff. A stiff breeze
would blow her over,” Trace countered.
she’s also a woman of many talents,” Doc Davis declared. “Well,
I have to be getting back to my office. Good day, gentlemen.”
for stopping by, Doc,” the Sheriff replied, escorting the physician
to the door.
Whitaker closed the portal and crossed his arms over his chest as he
leaned back against it.
it seems we have a mystery on our hands,” the lawman noted.
Trace replied, still shaking his head in wonder. “It’s not
brain was still working over the problem as he left for the bank and
then the livery stable. He purchased a chestnut gelding, along with
a saddle and harness and stopped by the general store for some
additional supplies before leaving for his claim.
road west of town was in a little better condition than Trace
remembered, which was both good and bad, he supposed. In the six
years that he had been gone, the town had certainly had enough time
to improve the condition of the highway, but that also meant that
there was a need as well. Apparently, enough folks now lived out
this way that improvements were in order. Trace had always liked
having enough space between himself and the next man down the road.
he wanted his cattle ranch to be successful, Trace needed a certain
amount of land, too. Still, Trace had located his house relatively
close to his partner’s just for protection. George could tunnel
into the mountainside all he wanted while Trace grazed his cattle on
the lush grass above. It had seemed like the perfect solution.
However, if the ore had been proven of good quality, there might be
neighbors with other claims too close on either side. Trace would
either have to buy them out or locate elsewhere.
still couldn’t get over what the doctor had said about Calhoun’s
arm. According to the physician, the man couldn’t even have picked
up the gun, much less aimed and shot at their pursuers.
Miss Seaton certainly didn’t seem the type. Still, when they’d
rolled into town, she had been seated on the side of the coach from
which the shots emanated. Although she’d been a little shaken, she
had managed to assist Mr. Calhoun from the coach before departing
herself. Trace made a mental note to find out where the Seatons
lived, for it seemed that he had some investigating to do.
passed several shacks and small cabins on his way to the claim, and
he marveled at the number of new neighbors he and George now had.
One grizzled old miner had even pointed a gun at him until he
realized Trace hadn’t come to jump his claim. The dog belonging to
the family on the other side of Harper’s Creek had chased his horse
halfway up Tanner’s Hill before the boy had finally managed to call
him back. Seemingly overnight, the population around Spencer’s
Bounty had blossomed, making Trace feel a little claustrophobic. If
he hadn’t wanted to see his partner, George Linley, so badly, he
would have turned around and ridden the other way out of town.
Trace rounded the familiar curve in the road and beheld the mountain
cabin he and Ransom Redding had built so long ago, Trace felt an
unfamiliar tightening in his gut. He was home at last.
had never been very handy with a hammer, but the cabin looked in
pretty good shape for the most part. The front porch roof was
sagging a little bit in the middle and there seemed to be one
floorboard missing, but the cabin still had all of its windows and
there was a welcome gray curl of smoke rising from the small chimney.
The outhouse had been relocated to the other side of the cabin and
the tiny building nestled against the side of the makeshift stable
like a young chick under a hen’s wing.
there was still no sign of George. Considering the nasty reception
Trace had received closer toward town, he thought it best to make his
in the house!” Trace called, his voice sounding very loud in the
listened, but he heard nothing save the soft clop of his horse’s
hooves on the firmly packed dirt road and the gentle whisper of
Trace tried again. “George Linley!”
tall pine trees over Trace’s head rustled in the slight breeze and
two gray squirrels chattered to each other noisily as they dashed
across the branches of the tree over his head. George Linley was
nowhere in sight. Judging that it was safe to approach the house,
Trace urged his mount forward, then swung down at the front porch and
tied the beast to the front railing. Trace gathered up some of the
supplies, stepped up onto the porch and swung the door open.
to the bright midday sun, the cabin was very dark and it took Trace’s
eyes a moment to adjust to the lack of light. He almost ran into the
edge of the table before he picked it out of the darkness. Trace
deemed it advisable to stand his ground until he could see better.
George had apparently done a little redecorating and the inside of
the cabin actually looked better than when he’d left it.
were blue and white checked curtains hanging at the windows and a rag
rug on the rough wood floor beneath his feet. A large double bed
with a cast iron head and footboard had taken the place of the bunk
beds they’d constructed in the corner of the room. There were now
two real cupboards hanging on either side of the dry sink where only
two boards had been used for shelving before he’d left. The
fireplace was the same, however, and Trace stared at the blackened
stones remembering happier days when his father had been alive and in
a good mood. Unfortunately, the memories were very old and faded by
lowered the supplies onto the table and approached the mantel, where
his mother’s small brass clock still ticked out the minutes in
perfect precision. Gingerly, he ran his large fingertips over its
smooth surface, noting that the timepiece could use a little polish
and recalling the happy hours he’d spent with his mother learning
how to tell time.