Excerpt for Redding's Choice by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


By Ann B. Keller

Redding’s Choice

By Ann B. Keller

Smashwords Edition

ISBN – EPUB: 9781370205042

Copyright 2017 Ann B. Keller

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By Ann B. Keller

Chapter 1

Julia 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.

The 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.

Phinneas 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.

“Goodness!” Louise Bremerton gasped in outrage. “Must we hit every bump in the road?”

Julia 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 endurance test.

Beside 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.

Oscar 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 business.

The 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.

Mr. 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.

By 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.

Julia 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 way.

One 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.

Morris 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.

The 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 was revealed.

The 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.

Finally, 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 stepmother’s influence.

Half 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.

Julia 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.

Julia 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 for long.

Unfortunately, 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.

Compared 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.

In 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.

Although 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.

The 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.

Julia gasped as the coach violently lurched through a particularly nasty bump in the road, throwing her shoulder against the wall.

“Really!” Mrs. Bremerton complained. “What does that driver think we are, cattle?”

“If we were, we’d be traveling by train or walking,” Mr. Calhoun noted. “Would you like to walk to Spencer’s Bounty, Mrs. Bremerton?”

“Don’t be impertinent,” the other woman countered, frowning at the merchant.

“Now, dear,” Mr. Bremerton crooned, patting his wife’s arm. “I’m sure that Mr. McGillicuddy is doing the best that he can.”

“Why we had to come all this way to visit your mother, I’ll never know,” Louise grumbled.

Mr. Bremerton’s gray eyes widened in shock.

“Momma 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. Bremerton explained.

“A 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.”

“See there, dear?” Mr. Bremerton asked with a nod. “Everything will be fine once we get there. You’ll see.”

“What an impossible situation,” his wife countered.

From 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.

Trace 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.

The 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.

Over 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.

The 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.

Trace 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.

One 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.

Trace 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.

So, 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.

With 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.

Once 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.

Indeed, 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 counsel.

Suddenly, the coach rocked forward, then back again. Trace could hear the driver calling to the horses for greater speed.

“What is it?” Louise Bremerton asked and drew the curtain aside a little to peer outside.

A 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.

“Louise!” Mr. Bremerton exclaimed, struggling to keep his wife from tumbling onto the floor of the coach. “Are you all right?”

“Get down!” Trace ordered, drawing his pistol. “Everybody down!”

Julia 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 stagecoach.

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.

Mr. 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.

“This is insane!” Mr. Bremerton cried, his eyes wide with fright. “Stop the coach. You must stop the coach!”

“If we do that, we’re all dead,” Trace grumbled. “Now keep your head down.”

“Oh, dear. Louise? Louise, wake up, sweetheart,” Mr. Bremerton called to her, gently patting her round cheeks.

From 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.

“They got the driver,” Trace grimly announced.

“Mr. McGillicuddy?” Mr. Bremerton gasped. “Then who’s driving the stagecoach?”

Trace holstered his gun and slid forward on the seat as he reached for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Mr. Calhoun challenged.

“Somebody has to go up there and take the reins,” Trace noted.

“You must be insane!”

“You’ll be killed for sure!” Mr. Bremerton agreed.

“We’ll 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 grimly announced.

Julia 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.

“You can’t go,” Mr. Bremerton protested.

“Here,” Trace replied, handing the little man one of his guns. “You take over shooting for a while.”

Mr. Bremerton reluctantly accepted the scout’s second handgun, holding it gingerly with his thumb and one finger, as he eyed the weapon distastefully.

“You do know how to shoot, don’t you?” Trace asked the little man.

“Well, I – I --” Mr. Bremerton stammered.

“Don’t you?” Trace demanded.

Bremerton gulped.

“I can’t stand the sight of blood,” Bremerton finally admitted.

Mr. Calhoun and Trace exchanged a glance.

“Perfect,” Trace growled and swung the door wide. “Try to keep them off of me as long as you can.”

“I will,” Calhoun promised.

Trace 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.

Mr. 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.

“Maybe I – maybe I can help you,” Julia offered, attempting to lever the unconscious Mrs. Bremerton off her shoulder.

“Oh, thank you!” Mr. Bremerton gratefully gasped.

Julia frowned at the little man’s misunderstanding.

“Mr. 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 coach.

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 out.

Suddenly, an arrow split the gap between one of the right windows and the door frame, embedding itself into Mr. Calhoun’s right shoulder.

“I’m hit!” Calhoun gasped, clutching at the arrow as he lowered his smoking pistol toward the floor.

Mr. 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.

“I’m 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.

“Then give me your gun,” Julia suggested, pushing against Mrs. Bremerton’s back.

“Ma’am?” the merchant asked, frowning at the diminutive woman crouched in the bottom of the stagecoach.

Miss 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.

The 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.

“Help lift her off me and I can try to help all of us,” Julia emphasized.

“You?” Mr. Calhoun questioned incredulously.

“I can try,” Julia admitted. “Do you have a better idea?”

From 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

For 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.

By 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.

Fortunately, 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.

In a 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.

Swinging 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.

Trace 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 Spencer’s Bounty.

For 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.

Quite 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.

Trace 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.

First 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.

After 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.

Finally, 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.

Julia 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.

Trace caught the small woman as she fell, cradling Julia close and bearing her into the hotel in his strong arms.

“Trace? Trace Redding!” the hotel desk clerk cried when he saw him.

“Is she hurt?” one of the ladies asked.

“I think she just fainted,” Trace replied.

“I – I can walk,” Julia mumbled, clutching her swirling head.

“The heck you can,” Trace grumbled. “A room?”

“Number three,” the desk clerk offered. “Second door on your right past the top of the stairs.”

Trace 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.

“Please,” Julia pleaded once again, her fingers grazing the top of Trace’s broad shoulder. “I’m fine, really.”

“We’ll let Doc Knowles decide that,” Trace firmly told her. “Somebody send for Doc Knowles!”

“He passed away this past April. It’s Doc Davis now, but he’s been sent for,” one of the men assured him.

Despite 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.

Carefully, 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.

Trace 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.

The Sheriff met Trace at the bottom of the steps and warmly shook his large hand.

“Trace. You’ve had a busy morning, I hear,” the Sheriff noted.

“You might say that,” Trace replied with a grin.

Sheriff 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.

Ben 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.

Unfortunately, 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.

Bitter 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.

There 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.

Trace 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.

Ben grinned up at the younger man, well pleased by what he saw.

“If there was anyone who could have brought that stage in today, it would have been you,” Sheriff Whitaker noted with approval. “Welcome home, Trace.”

“Thanks, Ben,” Trace replied with a grin.

“Any casualties?” Ben asked.

“The 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.”

“Let me through, please,” young Doc Davis insisted, shouldering his way through the crowd of people gathered near the base of the stairs.

Trace and Sheriff Whitaker cleared a small path for the physician and he promptly climbed the steps to tend to the wounded.

“You were lucky today,” Sheriff Whitaker replied. “Red Tail’s braves have been doing a lot of raiding lately.”

“Red Tail?” Trace gasped. “I’m surprised the chief is still alive. He must be over seventy now.”

Ben nodded.

“But 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 drink?”

Trace chuckled. “I could sure use one.”

“Good. I’m buying.”

Chapter 2

When 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? 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.

“Aunt Alicia! Rose, Maggie!” Julia gasped, tears of joy welling in her eyes as they embraced her one by one.

“I might have known you’d find a way to make an entrance,” Rose quipped, grinning at her younger sister.

“Oh, pish tosh! Don’t listen to her, Julia,” Maggie grumbled. “She’s just jealous.”

“Am not!” Rose angrily countered.

“Are, too!” Maggie fired back.

Mrs. Lewis chuckled at their exchange and wisely steered her daughter toward the door.

“Well, we’ll just let you ladies get reacquainted,” Mrs. Lewis advised and pulled her daughter from the room as she closed the door behind her.

Aunt 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.

“I can’t believe it!” Alicia gasped. “All of you here together at last. Let me look at you.”

Dutifully, 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.

Rose 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 the menfolk.

By 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.

Julia, 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.

Alicia shook her head as tears of gratitude welled in her eyes.

Alicia 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.

“Thanks be to God, you are all here at last! And look at you. You’re all so beautiful,” Alicia sighed.

“Thank you,” Rose quickly replied, smoothing her slender hand over her hair.

“Really?” Maggie asked hopefully, blushing like a school girl.

And Julia laughed. “Aunt Alicia, I think you need glasses,” she quipped, frowning at the older woman.

“Julia!” Rose gasped in astonishment. “What a horrid thing to say.”

“I’m covered with dust and blood and I’ve been traveling for days,” Julia pointed out.

“Yes, 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.”

Julia grinned as she hugged her sisters. “We are, at that.”

“Are 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.”

“I’d like that very much,” Julia readily agreed.

“Good. Then let’s take you to your new home,” Alicia decreed.

Julia 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.

Rose 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.

Aunt Alicia led the way to the stagecoach, where one of the men located and tossed down Julia’s bag. Picking up Julia’s bag, the ladies walked deeper into town toward the boarding house where they all lived and worked.

As 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.

A 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.

“Well, here we are!” Rose happily announced.

Julia 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.

Maggie 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.

Julia 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.

“It smells wonderful!” Julia gasped.

Aunt Alicia smiled with pleasure. “I’m glad you approve.”

“You 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.”

“All right, girls. I’m sure Julia will have plenty of time to get acquainted with everything once she recovers a little,” Alicia cautioned.

“Oh, but I’m ready to help today, if you need me,” Julia offered.

“Wonderful! You can help with lunch,” Rose agreed.

“Nonsense. 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.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Julia assured her aunt.

“Good. Now, off with you two. Back to your duties. I’ll take Julia upstairs and get her settled in a room.”

Rose 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.

Julia 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.

“These 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, no. I’m sure it will be fine,” Julia assured her.

Julia 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.

“I 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?”

Julia smiled and nodded. “I’m sure I’ll be very comfortable. Thank you.”

“Good. 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?”

“I will,” Julia promised.

Julia 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.

“What have I gotten myself into?” she wondered aloud, as she glanced around the room.

Trace 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.

Miss 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.

Doc 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.

“Well, Doc?” the Sheriff prompted. “How is Mr. Calhoun?”

“He’ll 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.

“That bad?” Sheriff Whitaker inquired.

“I’m afraid so.”

Trace shook his head at the disappointing news.

“That’s 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.”

Doc Davis’ eyes narrowed as he stared suspiciously at Trace.

“Do I understand you to say that Mr. Calhoun continued to fire his pistol after he was wounded?” the physician asked.

“Sure did,” Trace affirmed.

“Extraordinary,” Doc Davis mused aloud, his thoughts already far away.

“What is it, Doc?” the Sheriff asked.

“What? 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.”

“Maybe he’s one of those men who can shoot with both hands?” Trace suggested.

“Yes, maybe he’s abber – I mean, alti --”

“Ambidextrous?” Doc Davis supplied.

“That’s it,” the Sheriff confirmed with a nod.

Doc Davis shook his head.

“I 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.

“Then if he didn’t do the shooting, who did?” the Sheriff demanded.

Trace’s 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.

“No,” Trace mused aloud, thoughtfully rubbing his chin. “It can’t be.”

“Miss Seaton?” the Sheriff asked.

“It’s not possible. You’ve seen the woman, Sheriff. A stiff breeze would blow her over,” Trace countered.

“Apparently, she’s also a woman of many talents,” Doc Davis declared. “Well, I have to be getting back to my office. Good day, gentlemen.”

“Thanks for stopping by, Doc,” the Sheriff replied, escorting the physician to the door.

Ben Whitaker closed the portal and crossed his arms over his chest as he leaned back against it.

“Well, it seems we have a mystery on our hands,” the lawman noted.

“No,” Trace replied, still shaking his head in wonder. “It’s not possible.”

Trace’s 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.

The road northwest 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.

If 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.

Trace 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.

Quiet 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.

Chapter 3

Trace 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.

As 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.

George 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.

However, there was still no sign of George. Considering the nasty reception Trace had received closer toward town, he thought it best to make his presence known.

“Hello in the house!” Trace called, his voice sounding very loud in the quiet glade.

Trace 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 Harper’s Creek.

“George?” Trace tried again. “George Linley!”

The 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.

Compared 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.

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