Love and the Lawman
A restless man who moves west to start a new life.
A widow searching for her purpose and security.
These enemies clash—and then meld as danger and love bring them to the edge . . .
Civil War veteran Jack Duncan heads west once the war ends. After stints as a bounty hunter and silver miner, he lands a job as sheriff in Silver Bluff, Colorado Territory. A man of strong moral convictions, Jack is concerned when the Kessler brothers come to town and begin buying up land and taking over businesses. The Kesslers made an under-the-table fortune during the war, so Jack determines to keep a watchful eye on the pair.
Nora Cantrelle leaves a ravaged Louisiana after the suicide of her husband, a Confederate soldier who never recovered from his devastating war wounds. With her family in tow, she travels to Silver Bluff to start a newspaper and a new life.
Sparks fly as the Northern lawman and Southern reporter clash, but love blossoms as they unite to discover what the Kessler brothers are up to. Fire, vandalism, death, and murder—will Jack and Nora be able to keep their town safe enough to build a future together?
Love and the Lawman is a standalone western historical romance from Alexa Aston's Lawmen of the West series, which features heroes of the American west in various law enforcement positions and the strong heroines who bring love into their lives.
Release date: August 10, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 344
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Love and the Lawman
Nora Cantrelle flinched as she entered the sick room. It had happened again. She’d go to hell for this.
She probably deserved to.
Yet to an unfamiliar eye, everything was the same as always. The bedroom was dark, save for the flickering candle she held in one hand. How many times had she wanted to fling open the windows and let the strong sunlight pour in? Or see gingham curtains sway in a gentle breeze that brought a whisper of honeysuckle and magnolia into the room?
Paul never wanted the windows open. He said light hurt his eyes. He insisted on heavy, damask drapes that looked as cheerful as a dour nun doing penance for an imagined wrong. So the room remained dim and the air stale and musty, a sickroom for a man who had chosen long ago to give up on living.
She glanced to the corner. The faint outline of Paul’s prosthesis, propped against the wall, served as a reminder of the failures that blanketed the room.
Moving across the hardwood floor on tiptoe, she kept her gaze on Paul. He lay motionless in the canopied bed, propped against several pillows, the coverlet tucked snuggly around him. His eyes were closed. A half-smile played about his lips, the first she had seen since before the War of Northern Aggression began. She bent and traced it with her fingertip, pushing back the deep longing that raged within her soul.
Nora picked up the empty bottle of laudanum and stared at it. The painkiller had been within easy reach. On a table next to his bed. Her husband was now dead.
Just as she’d wished.
Another death on her hands.
She pictured this room twenty years earlier. Not much had changed. Nora had been a child of six with a bedridden mother who wasn’t afraid to use her waspish tongue, especially on her timid husband and only child.
Nora dreaded her daily visits to this room and that day had been like all the rest. Her mother, who insisted that her daughter call her Genevieve, made everyone’s life hard with her constant complaints and sarcasm. She berated and scolded her daughter incessantly, which filled Nora with despair. Genevieve didn’t cared that spring had just arrived and the birds were bursting with song, ready to usher in a new season, full of hope.
Nora had looked at her mother, a wilting beauty who faded more with each passing year. She finally broke down and prayed for Genevieve’s death. Jesus really listened to prayer, just as all the sisters at St. Joseph said He did. He heard her plea.
Her mother died less than two hours later.
Of course, Dr. Ford said it was her heart. Always weak, it grew weaker during her pregnancy and Nora’s subsequent birth. Genevieve remained an invalid ever since, growing more feeble and frail as the years passed. Heart failure was the official notation on her death certificate.
But Nora knew differently. It was because she had prayed for her mother to die.
She was so badly shaken that she didn’t pray for a long time after that, afraid if she did, her prayers would come to pass. She tried to think only pure thoughts, which didn’t last long. Caroline Porter stuck Nora’s braid in an inkwell and she wished the younger girl would fall down in the mud and dirty the golden locks she was so proud of. The bully of St. Joseph’s School did trip Caroline on her way home from school that day. Nora panicked that Caroline would die, too.
But nothing bad happened to either child. Gradually Nora relaxed, although she really never prayed again. She might desire something but she never pray to get it. A wish or hope was different from communing with God.
Until last night.
Only God knew she had been at her rope’s end. Paul’s bitterness drove her to exhaustion. She’d tried every way she knew to get him out of that bed and to force him to start living life again. She wanted her best friend back. She wanted him to be a real father to Robby.
Yet her husband’s rage had gone on and on. He came home from the war angry and stayed angry. At his wife. At the son born in his absence. At his parents’ death and the ruin of their family plantation. Paul’s fury extended to the South losing the war and the Union taking one of his brothers to an early grave.
Yet the root of his rage was the fact he’d returned to Monroe minus his right arm and leg.
“Look at me, Nora! Just look at me!” he demanded for the thousandth time.
Her eyes swept over the bony frame that wasted away. Five years in that bed. Just like her mother.
“I’m looking, Paul.”
“But do you see me?”
Tears glistened in her eyes “I do. I see a man too proud to start over, grieving for a life that no longer exists. I’m tired of it, Paul. Of you and—”
“You’re tired? How do you think I feel, lying in this bed, day after day, year after year?” His voice grew peevish. “I can’t get a moment’s rest anymore, not with those boarders lurking about, making all sorts of noise. You know I don’t sleep well. Now that complete strangers have run of the house, I find it near impossible to catch any rest at all.”
Nora sighed. “You know we need the extra income our boarders provide. The paper’s not doing well and it hasn’t in ages. Papa said—”
Paul exploded. “I don’t care what Albert said or what he thinks or what he feels. I resent that you bow to his every wish. If only we could live on our own. Then I know things would be better.”
She snorted. “Live on what? We live on Papa’s charity as it is. You take offense because he’s generous to us? I don’t see your brother helping us.”
“Richard has come down in the world. He would help if he could.”
Nora shook her head. “We’ve all come down to reality. The war saw to that.”
Talk of the war brought a steely glint to his eyes. “You don’t have to remind me, Nora. I’m the one who came home half a man.”
Anger flashed within her. “You’re not half a man. You’ve got a great mind. You survived the horror for a purpose. Do you honestly think I care for you any less simply because . . .” She choked on her words.
He sneered at her. “My darling wife. You are a fool.”
“No. The only fool in this room is the one who refuses to get out of bed and live again.” She shook her head. “You’ve become my mother.”
Paul glared at her. “Just give me my glass and go. I want to be alone and enjoy the solitude before those boarders create another ruckus."
Nora automatically reached for the water glass as he’d demanded, as she’d done every time for five long years.
And suddenly it became too much. Paul running her ragged ever since he’d come home, refusing to do even the small tasks he was capable of performing. Robby had been sick all day and most of the night. Nora found herself physically and emotionally drained. If the war had been a long nightmare, then the aftermath was Hell itself.
His voice interrupted her thoughts. “Nora. I said to get the glass.”
She turned to leave and before she could stop it, the prayer echoed in her head. She’d held it at bay for five years but like Pandora’s box, the evil of it broke free at that moment and the words spilled out.
She met her husband’s eyes. In a controlled whisper, void of emotion, she said, “You’re no good to me. To Robby. To anyone. I wish you were dead.”
She walked to the door and turned the handle. She hesitated a minute, staring at the brass knob as if it held all the answers to her problems. Finally, she opened the door and closed it gently behind her. Her footsteps echoed as she moved thoughtfully down the corridor.
And now Nora took a deep breath and made a decision. She would hide the fact that Paul had taken his life. She slipped the laudanum bottle inside her pocket. She must avoid scandal and protect Paul’s good name or it would reflect on Robby. She already would burn in Hell anyway. What was one lie on top of two deaths?
She was thankful she’d closed the door. Neither boarder they’d taken in during the past year had left for work yet, as it was still early. Privacy had been hard to come by with strangers living among them but this was a private matter now. Nora wondered just how much of their fight last night had been heard. She hoped Dr. Ford wouldn’t press too hard.
She fussed with the covers a moment. Paul looked peaceful in death, incredibly young and close to what Robby looked like now. The boy was the spitting image of his father at that age. Nora swallowed painfully. She wondered how things might have been different if war hadn’t torn the nation apart.
She bent and stroked her husband’s cheek in a loving gesture, as she had done when she was sixteen, full of desire for him and hope for their future. Though the ardor died long ago, she had continued to fulfill her responsibilities to Paul. She would do so now.
Nora slipped from the room of death and closed the door gently. Her hand gripped the bottle inside her skirt’s pocket. She wouldn’t even tell Albert. Her father had enough to worry about as it was.
Silver Bluff—Colorado Territory
Jack Duncan was bored. He readjusted his hard hat and stared at the wall before him, looking for the magical black vein that would indicate silver. He ran his hands over the rough edges, lost in thought.
An emptiness sat deep within him, growing stronger over the last year. He didn’t want to mine silver. Sure, he’d set out to make his fortune in Colorado when he’d first arrived. Things were different now. The tedium overwhelmed him. He didn’t know what he wanted out of life anymore.
He wasn’t afraid of hard work and had seen his share. This was different, though. He made the decision to turn in his notice to Old Man Stevenson when his shift ended today. He didn’t have a clue what he’d do next. At least he had some money saved.
Jack chuckled. Who’d have thought a man of thirty years wouldn’t know what to do when he grew up?
“What’s so funny, Duncan?”
He turned and saw Bran Stevenson making his way toward him. Behind the young man was the endless tunnel that branched off in many directions, held up by supports every few feet.
“Ready to get your hands dirty, boy?”
Bran grinned. “Pa says if I’m to run the mine one day, I’ve got to learn every aspect of it.”
Jack nodded. “He’s right. It’s not just accounting and payrolls and shipments and contracts. You have to understand the back-breaking work that goes into mining.”
The two men worked their way along the wall. Jack pointed out various subtleties to his younger companion. They passed one shaft entrance that had been capped off the week before because the foreman deemed it unsafe.
He explained, “Cave-ins are common in mining, Bran. It’s a risk every man down here understands.”
“But the pay is good.”
Jack grimaced. “I suppose so.”
Tell that to Bill Tompkins.
Two weeks earlier, Tompkins had been buried alive in a cave-in. Fortunately, he left no family behind. Mining was, for the most part, a lonely business.
They worked together in companionable silence until the shift ended.
“Thanks for your pointers, Duncan.”
He looked at the youthful face before him—eager, hard-working, exuberant. Just like a thousand other seventeen-year-olds. He liked the boss’s son. Bran Stevenson was a good kid.
Just like Buddy and Sam. The thought of his younger brothers washed a wave of sorrow over him.
“Let’s head in, kid.”
They made their way slowly through the narrow tunnel, the air stale as it poured through their nostrils. Jack always treasured the first gulp of clean air when he exited the mine.
Then it happened. A sudden shift in the earth. A startled cry. The world went topsy-turvy. He found himself on his back, the air knocked from him. Around him were muffled voices, a few moans, and then silence.
He thought of the boy first, on the cusp of manhood, bright and eager to conquer the world. Where the hell was he? Jack sat up and tried to get his bearings, swinging his lamp around in all directions.
He couldn’t see much of anything. Thick dust permeated the air. As he inhaled it, he coughed violently. Pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, he placed it over his nose and mouth as protection against the sooty grime. He slowed his breathing and closed his eyes, waiting for the dust to settle.
After a full minute, he opened them, gradually readjusting to the dim light. That was when he spotted part of a man. The wall support had collapsed around him. He crawled over and found the mine owner’s son half buried in the debris. One of the heavy beams lay across his lower legs, pinning him to the ground.
The boy was barely conscious. Sweat gleamed from his face, one that had yet to mature fully, with round cheeks and a soft mouth now racked with pain.
“Oh, God . . .” Bran croaked.
Another rumble began. Jack felt panic crackle in the air. Heard voices calling, “Hurry!” Two workers on their bellies crawled past them, elbows scooting them along.
“Better step on it, Duncan,” one called.
“Help me free Stevenson.”
Both men looked at him as if he were crazy. Without a word, they continued on their way.
“Go, Jack,” whispered Bran. “You’ll never get me out from this rubble.” A sob caught in the boy’s throat.
He hadn’t been there for Buddy or Sam. Maybe he could make a difference this time. “We’re in this together, son.”
The boy smiled feebly. “Thanks.”
He worked quickly with his pick, loosening the packed earth around Bran. He ignored the sounds around him. The straining wood. Bran’s labored breathing. The low rumbles in the bowels of the shaft. He had to get this kid out before a cave-in occurred.
He pushed away the last of the dirt and pieces of wood. With great effort, he lifted the girder aside. He sucked in a hard breath. Bran’s legs were crushed. He doubted the boy would ever walk again.
If he lived.
Jack flashed a confident smile. “Let’s get out of here.” He hoisted Bran upon his back and then half crouching, half dragging him, made his way to the top.
When he caught sight of daylight, it was the sweetest moment he could remember since he’d seen Lee’s troops retreating from Gettysburg on a hot July day. A crowd had gathered around the entrance to the shaft. Raucous cheers erupted as he clawed his way to safety.
Men lifted Bran from him. Jack collapsed on the ground, too tired to move. Someone rolled him over and brought a bottle of whiskey to his mouth. He drank from it deeply. The liquor burned a hot trail down his parched throat to his belly.
Jack sat up and pushed the bottle away. He wiped his mouth with the back of a dusty, torn sleeve and stood. He brushed the grime from his jeans amidst pats on his back. So many voices spoke at once. He had trouble following any of them so he ignored them all.
He took three steps away from the noisy crowd before his legs turned to rubber. He collapsed to the hard ground. He’d wait until he got his wind back. After all, the air was sweet and plentiful. He decided he was in no hurry. He inhaled slowly, enjoying the pull of clean air through his lungs.
Jack turned and focused on the shadowed figure in front of him, its face hidden by the surrounding sunlight. The words, though, rang loud and clear.
“You saved my son, man. Name whatever you want. It’s yours.”
“She always did have her head in the clouds. Why, Lord o’ Mercy, she acts as if nothing has happened. Just sitting there like she’s made of stone.”
Another harsh whisper joined the first. “Not a single tear shed for that dear husband of hers. Paul Cantrelle was the sweetest of those Cantrelle boys. Tip his hat to me and say, ‘Isn’t it a fine day, Mrs. Winston?’”
A tongue clucked softly. “He will be missed by the fine folks of Monroe.”
Nora bit her tongue hard and forced herself to remain calm. As if the fine folks of Monroe had visited Paul even once since the war ended. Had another widow held her tears, she would be called brave and stoic. Monroe’s rumormongers labeled Nora Cantrelle hard and unfeeling.
Robby tugged on her hand. She smiled down at her young son. She had wondered how she would manage to get through the funeral mass and graveside burial but one look at him made even this tragedy fade.
“You’re squeezing too hard, Mommy.”
Nora relaxed her hold on Robby’s hand. His gaze returned to the black coffin before them, his blue eyes large, as if he didn’t believe the events that unfolded.
The two old women began sniping again, their murmurings soft but clear to Nora’s ears.
“Why any Southern woman worth her salt would want to do a man’s job is beyond me. It just isn’t . . . feminine.”
Her companion sniffed noisily for show and blew into her embroidered handkerchief. “None of the town’s daughters behave in such a flighty manner. Genevieve Le Fall would be mortified to see her only child now.”
“You know Nora was asked to leave St. Joseph when she was only seven? Imagine that. A child of seven.”
A soft titter. “The nuns couldn’t handle her. Or so I heard.”
Nora wanted to scream. Of course she’d wanted to leave that stifling parochial school and go to the newspaper each day with her father. Albert was a far better teacher and not nearly as limiting as the somber nuns. The sisters took her as far as they could in her formal education but Nora hungered for much more.
Who cared what these old biddies said? They’d had their noses out of joint ever since she’d married Paul. Her marriage gave them fodder for their ever-cranking gossip mill.
Yet the strong backlash after her wedding surprised her. Paul had been her greatest friend and champion from the time they were in diapers. Coming together as man and wife had been something they assumed at a young age.
Monroe looked at it quite differently. Albert Le Fall might be well-educated and enjoy a certain standing within the community but Nora soon learned it unthinkable that a newspaper owner’s daughter might attempt to transition into the highest echelons of Monroe society. Society’s doors remained closed to her, despite the Cantrelle family’s considerable influence. She refused to burden her new husband with such petty dealings when he was off fighting in a bloody war. She continued to hold her head high and ignore the town’s pointed stares while she wrote to Paul of inconsequential things.
Father Deschard’s monotone ceased. Nora realized the service had ended. She looked to her father, his abundant white hair hidden by the tall black hat perched upon his head. He gave her shoulder a gentle pat, which caused the first tears of the day to spring to her eyes. She loved him so much and was thankful he’d stood by her all these years.
The crowd began to depart, soon to descend upon the house, bearing platters of fried chicken, sweet cornbread, peach pies, and cucumber salad, as they reminisced about Paul and the days when the South ruled.
Nora dreaded an afternoon filled with such talk. Since the war ended, she was eager for this New South all the politicians spoke of. She did her best to contribute to it by teaching two days a week at the local school for the children of freed slaves, working with students on their basic reading and writing skills. Even that was looked upon as suspect.
A man she knew only by sight made his way toward her. He was a prime example of how the white community of Monroe, now in genteel poverty, looked upon her. Only two days ago he actually spit upon her as she exited the freedman school. Horrified, she kept the incident to herself. It would do no good to get her father—or Ben—stirred up.
“A shame ‘bout your daddy.” The man focused on Robby as he added, “I am sorry for your loss.” He turned briefly to Nora, his eyes hard as he inclined his head.
She watched him and a hundred more like him leave the cemetery. She was slowly strangling here. She longed for freedom. Freedom from the South, which had crumbled long ago and refused to truly rebuild. Freedom to pursue a career as a writer, something that would never occur as long as she stayed in Louisiana, where women only strained their brains to consider if they’d gotten too much sun or how many beaux they should invite to their daddy’s barbecue.
At least she and Robby were free from Paul’s tirades. Still, she felt at loose ends. She visualized herself swathed in black, standing on a precipice that looked down into a canyon as far as her eye could see. Part of her wanted to leap off into the unknown. But where would it take her?
Nora looked into her only child’s face, upset by the dark smudges under his eyes.
He frowned at her. “I’m not a baby, Mama.”
She giggled. “Your lip is hanging down farther than Old Man Simpson’s hound dog’s.” She delighted in his sudden smile. “You’ll always be my baby, hon. Even when I’m in my eighties and you have grandchildren of your own, I’ll tell people, ‘There goes my baby boy.’”
Robby crinkled his nose in disgust. “You’re silly.” His face relaxed and then he grew serious. “Why were those old ladies talking all through Daddy’s funeral? It just bugged the dickens outta me, Mama. It wasn’t polite.”
Nora sighed. “I know, sweetie. It bothered me, too. They are old, though, and they were friends of your daddy’s parents. Sometimes, we have to forgive older people for their faults.”
“Well, Jess would’ve slapped ‘em up side the head or popped ‘em with her cup towel.” He paused, a mischievous grin painting his face. “I wish she would’ve, too.”
“Oh, you!” Nora exclaimed, ruffling his blond hair affectionately. “Go on home with Ben now. I’m going to tell Daddy goodbye and then I’ll be along soon.”
Nora bent on one knee in front of the casket and stared at it. She scooped up a handful of dirt in her gloved hand.
“Goodbye, Paul. I hope you find peace.”
She stood and scattered the soil across the gravesite.
She turned and saw her brother-in-law, Richard Cantrelle, making his way toward her. He was Paul’s opposite in every way. Where Paul had been tall and fair, Richard was stout and dark. Paul’s eyes had reflected the blue sky, while Richard’s were as dark as sin.
“Hello, Richard.” She gave him a brief, social smile, the best she could manage since he was her least favorite person.
“We must talk.”
She frowned. “Here? Now?”
“Yes.” He took her elbow and pulled her aside to the shade of an old magnolia, its yellow and rose petals just beginning to bloom on this early spring day. Nora inhaled their sweet scent as she shook off his hand.
“What is it, Richard? Please get to the point.”
“Always one for polite conversation, Nora.” He studied her briefly, as if he’d noticed something for the first time. “What I’ve got to say is about Robby.”
“Well, aren’t you interested?” Richard demanded.
“Go on.” She fought the impulse to rip off a glove and bite her thumbnail, a life-long bad habit that would betray her nervousness.
Richard took a deep breath. “I think Robby should come to live at Blair Oaks. You, too, of course,” he quickly added. “It will be his one day.”
“What’s left of it.”
He ignored her cutting remark. “You know my wife is in ill health. My girls will marry and leave one day. I would like Blair Oaks to remain in the family, with family to run it. I think it would be to your advantage—Robby’s, too—to have us live together as a family.”
“As a family?” Nora could hardly believe his words. “No, Richard, we don’t want anything from the Cantrelles. Your parents never approved of me. They never asked Robby and me to live with them while Paul was gone. You yourself turned your back on the three of us, refusing to visit your brother for years.”
“I couldn’t bear to see him in . . . that condition.”
“And you think that helped him? He became bitter and old before his time, thanks to people like you.” Nora waved a hand around the graveyard. “The turn-out today was exactly what would have been expected for a Cantrelle yet where were all these people when Paul needed them? He fought for their way of life. Their dreams.”
Her hard laugh was bitter. “No, they all stayed away and Paul retreated further into himself until he had nowhere else to go.”
She straightened her shoulders and looked her brother-in-law squarely in the eye. “Thank you for your kind offer, Richard, but I choose to decline. Good day.” She strode away briskly, hoping she’d done the right thing.
Once she walked the few blocks home, her temper cooled considerably, helped by a tall glass of Jess’ sweet tea. She was thankful for that. It would take every bit of Southern graciousness she could muster to be attentive to the guests roaming about her father’s home. It hurt to swallow her pride and cater to these people.
She did it, though. For Paul. Nora knew what was expected of her. His reputation was on the line, even now. This would be her last sacrifice for him.
Nora was pleasant to every caller the remainder of the afternoon, nodding occasionally when the conversation called for it, though her thoughts were far away. She refused to be caught up in reminiscences of the past. She’d spent far too many hours at Paul’s bedside to be trapped the same way today. She promised herself from now on she’d only look to the future.
Nora was weary by the time she closed the door on the last of the sympathy callers. She pulled the pins from her hair and let it fall to her waist.
“I done put Master Robby in bed, Miss Nora. He was tuckered out but good.” Jess shook her head. “All those women pinching on him. Why do white folks go squeezin’ cheeks so?”
She laughed and put her arms around Jess. The only woman she’d ever thought of as her mother barely came to her shoulder. Nora hugged Jess and playfully pinched her honey-brown cheek.
“Because cheeks are so sweet, Jess.”
Jess’s dark eyes went wide at Nora’s sassy remark and she pinched her back. “You a brazen thing, Miss Nora, wi’ your teasin’. I should tan your backside but good.” The servant’s eyes sparkled with mischief, much as Robby’s did when he’d pulled a prank.
“Let’s clean up, Jess. It’s been a long day.”
“Ben and I can take care o’ that, Miss Nora. Your papa done want to see you in his study.”
Nora laughed. “So, that’s where he disappeared to. I know I haven’t seen him for the better part of two hours.”
Jess shrugged. “You know Mister Albert. He’d always rather be wi’ books and his writin’ than with people any day. He gets downright bored with all that gossipin’ and recipe tradin’.”
She raised her brows. “And I don’t?”
Jess smiled. “I jes’ taught you better manners, chile. Not that you listened to what folks had to say today.”
“Oh, dear. Could you really tell?”
“I could, Miss Nora. I doubt no one else ‘cept Ben could, though. We knows you too well.” She gave Nora a swat. “Go see what Mr. Albert wants.”
Nora put her hand on her hips. “I’m too old for you to go swatting me, Jess,” she said with mock humor.
Jess beamed. “Don’t you go tryin’ me none, Miss Nora. I’ll take a cup towel to you if I have to now.”
She laughed, fondly remembering the times she’d been in trouble, Jess chasing her around, popping her dish towel as fast as her wrist could snap it. Nora always remained out of Jess’ reach, thanks to her longer legs.
“Not the cup towel,” Ben moaned.
The two women turned and saw Ben put a hand to his forehead. “What am I goin’ do wi’ you two? I turn my back for two minutes, you be ready to act like—”
“Like the sensible, mature women we are,” Nora finished. “Why don’t you and Jess go to bed, Ben? It’s been a long day. We can clean up tomorrow.”
Ben’s face lit with a wicked grin. “Don’t nobody have to tell Ol’ Ben twice.” He took his wife’s hand. “C’mon, now, Jess. You done heard Miss Nora. She be orderin’ us to bed.”
He gave her a quick kiss on the lips. Jess giggled like a schoolgirl.
“Goodnight, Miss Nora,” they both called as they exited the room.
“Goodnight,” she said softly, the ache in her heart throbbing as they passed through the doors. Even after all these years, they were so much in love. Nora wondered what love—real love—was all about.
She thought she loved Paul and was deliriously happy when they became engaged on her sixteenth birthday. Papa begged them to wait until she was eighteen to marry and they agreed, aware that her father still wanted her as his little girl for a while longer.
That was fine with Nora. She could wait because her feelings for Paul were so strong. He was a true Southern gentleman. When the town as a whole gossiped viciously about her every move, it was Paul who treated her with courtesy. He respected her for her mind and all she wanted to accomplish as a writer.
Then war broke out, just weeks after their engagement had been announced. Nothing had been the same since. Paul surprised everyone by volunteering to serve in the new Confederate army. Though tall and strong, Nora worried about him. His nature was so sweet, so gentle and passive. She couldn’t imagine Paul charging the enemy on a battlefield of smoke, bleeding men in his sight, when he couldn’t even stomach the thought of the chicken slaughtered for dinner.
He came home a different man, returning to Monroe for a brief leave just weeks after Gettysburg. They hadn’t seen each other in over two years but Paul expressed his eagerness to marry her the moment he arrived home, despite the protests from his family.
He had changed, though. She couldn’t quite put her finger on the difference. Nora believed she married a stranger as they stood before Father Deschard and proclaimed their vows as family and a few friends witnessed the nuptial mass. Yet they had loved one another since childhood. Nora believed love would conquer whatever barrier had come between them.
Or so she’d thought.
Their wedding night turned into an abysmal failure. Intellectually, she was prepared for what would happen. Jess explained all the physical aspects to her, even down to the pain she would feel the first time she made love.
Nothing prepared her, though, for the lack of emotion she would experience. Their first coupling was terribly disappointing. They were both virgins and had a hard time coming together. Nora believed their awkwardness was due to nerves and their lack of experience, even Paul’s physical exhaustion after months of campaigning with few rations and little sleep.
The second time confirmed they had made a mistake. No passion sparked between them. They kissed a few times before he returned to battle and she remembered those kisses as sweet yet unsatisfying. She supposed things would be different once they were free to act as man and wife in the privacy of their own home, where they would give each other their hearts.
Nora wrongly assumed her marriage would be like Jess’ and Ben’s. She’d witnessed their wedded bliss growing up, a day-to-day love affair that deepened each year. She ran across them countless times in fervent kisses or quick embraces when they thought they were alone for a moment. The looks passing between them spoke more than any declarations of love from the lips of others.
Heat rose in her cheeks even now when she remembered the one time she accidentally walked in on them as they made love. They’d been oblivious to her, engrossed in their touches. Nora had quietly closed the door but she longed for the time when she, too, would experience that kind of magic with her own beloved.
Yet Paul’s kisses left her empty, as if she kissed a brother. The fire, the desire, all that she’d expected, never came. They had been friends so long that romance played no role in their marriage. Nora remained disappointed, afraid her mistake would never be remedied.
Paul left to rejoin Lee after two days, the longest two days in her life. She couldn’t wait to see him go and experienced tremendous guilt when he rode off. She worried that he would die on the battlefield, that she’d never see him again, that she would never be able to make things right between them.
She brushed aside a tear and tamped down the jealousy that rushed through her. She should be thankful that Ben and Jess were still in love after more than twenty-five years together. They remained childless, while Nora gave thanks every day for Robby. He was the light of her life. Nothing would cause her to regret his existence.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, gaining control of her emotions as she wondered what her father wanted. Probably something about the editorial she’d written. His mind remained fixated on his newspaper.
Nora knocked lightly on the door to the study and heard him call for her to enter.
He was seated behind his oak desk, a pipe in his hand. His eyes brightened as she took a seat in front of him. They’d sat this way a thousand times, discussing stories to run, ideas for editorials, and ways to make the paper turn a higher profit. The study was her favorite room in the house. Her happiest moments had been spent here with her father.
“Nora, we must talk.”
He packed the pipe with a special blend of tobacco, his only concession to luxury in an otherwise Spartan life. Nora watched each gesture, compact and swift, until the pipe was lit. The sweet smell of tobacco slowly filled the room as he settled back in his chair.
“Would you care to leave Monroe?”
His blunt question startled her. “Tell me what this is about.”
He closed his eyes and for a moment and Nora could see how age had suddenly caught up to him. At this moment, he looked every one of his sixty years. She’d always thought him ageless yet in the space of seconds he looked like an old man. It wasn’t his white hair. It had turned white almost overnight when Genevieve died. Still, his bushy brows had remained coal-black and they were his most expressive feature.
He finally opened his eyes, mischief dancing in them.
“Papa, you’ve been up to something. What’s going on?”
“You know how I feel about the South, Nora. I love it like an errant child. I have often disagreed with its politics but I have lived here all my life. I would continue to do so if I thought it feasible.”
“And it isn’t?”
He shook his head. “No, it isn’t. Business declined during the war and never picked back up. Money’s hard to come by and will be for some time. People share newspapers instead of buying one of their own. They get their news off the streets and after church.”
He stood and began to pace the room. “I see no future in this New South. It’s nothing but talk. It’s the same Old South with carpetbaggers taking advantage of everyone—white and black alike—until they milk us dry. Then these damn Yankees’ll go home and where will we be?”
Her heart quickened. Nora had no idea what her father planned but it was obvious he’d given it great thought. “What do you propose?”
“I think we should pack up and move out west.”
Her jaw dropped. No words came out.
He chuckled. “You’re speechless, child. Perhaps I’ll make this my lead story tomorrow.”
Nora regained her composure. “You’ve threatened to make my actions your lead a hundred times, Papa. Go on.” Her excitement grew by the minute.
“I have been thinking about this for some time but it was impossible as long as Paul was in poor health. Colorado is fast-growing and full of opportunities. It’s certain to become a state in the next few years. And where there are enough people to petition for statehood—”
“—there are enough people ready to buy a newspaper and read about it,” she finished. “Papa, are you certain you want to go?”
He smiled. “Only if you do. Actually, Ben and Jess must want to go, too. I’d rather take them before you, anyway. They are much more helpful to me,” he said playfully.
She jumped to her feet and threw herself into her father’s arms. “You think Ben could write all those editorials for you?”
He took a moment to think about it before he answered. “No, he’s not quite ready yet. I suppose I’ll need to take you after all.”
Nora danced around the room. “Colorado! I don’t know much about it but it sounds like heaven.”
“I have acquired quite a few articles the last three years, Daughter. I’ll let you read through them. Then if you think we should go, we shall.”
Nora smiled at her father. “I’ll read the information you’ve collected, Papa, but I can give you my answer now. If Ben and Jess agree, let’s leave by the end of the week.”
Jack nodded a greeting as he made his way down Silver Bluff’s main street. He glanced at the star pinned to his black vest. Although he’d been sheriff six months, he still wasn’t used to seeing it there.
It surprised everyone—and maybe himself most of all—when he’d asked Old Man Stevenson to name him the town’s lawman immediately after Jack’s rescue of Bran. Silver Bluff didn’t have anything remotely resembling a peace officer.
It came to him on the spot that the town needed one.
Silver Bluff boomed overnight when one of the richest strikes in Colorado became public knowledge. He was one of many intrigued by the find who poured into the place, which didn’t even have a name attached to it in those early days.
He took care of himself, which is more than he could say for some of the men who arrived looking for instant wealth. A rowdy element settled in for a short span. Ill-prepared for roughing it, a good number of newcomers found themselves cheated and beaten. Once no new discoveries were found, the worst of the riffraff moved on for greener pastures.
Jack had liked this place, though. After five years of wandering, he was ready to call Silver Bluff home. The air was sweet. The lake nearby danced with fish. The surrounding mountains took his breath away. He’d witnessed so much carnage during the war. He still dreamed of it most nights. If he planted roots here, at least he’d be assured of waking up to beauty, no matter what his nightmares held.
He joined the bulk of workers who remained and went to work for Stevenson’s mining company. For the most part, his fellow laborers proved hard-working men—reliable, steady and law-abiding. Only Saturday nights at the local saloon got boisterous.
Now, a general store stood on the main thoroughfare and they’d completed the Methodist church a month ago. Silver Bluff had the makings of a real town. Jack aimed to see it stay on the straight and narrow. Burke Stevenson had cottoned to the idea of a sheriff and signed him to a one-year contract, renewable if he remained in good standing.
He wondered if that was the case now.
Pulling his hat lower, he strode down the street, a muddy bog due to recent rains. It was something he wanted to discuss with the new boss, William Kessler. Kessler had bought the Stevenson Mining Company and other interests Burke held in the town and beyond, as well as the two-story house half a mile outside town.
The old man had sold out, something Jack never anticipated, given Stevenson’s interest in the mining process but one that was understandable. Stevenson took young Bran down to Denver for treatment immediately after his accident. After months of therapy, the prognosis for walking was just this side of hopeless. Burke Stevenson decided to pull up stakes and head back east in search of the best medical care available for his only child. Jack couldn’t blame him.
He wondered what the new owner would be like. The transactions occurred in Denver and William Kessler had only arrived in town late last night. He hoped it was a good sign that Kessler summoned him so soon.
He continued down the small thoroughfare, almost empty at mid-morning. The bulk of Silver Bluff’s working force toiled at the mine. Only a few scattered souls had business at this hour. The ones he passed gave their sheriff a polite nod of recognition.
Kessler’s house loomed ahead, surrounded by a white picket fence and lush grass made green by the spring storms. He walked through the hinged gate and up a short flight of steps, pausing to lift his hat and run his fingers through his unruly hair before he knocked.
A slight Chinese man answered. Jack recognized him as Stevenson’s butler. Probably smart leaving him in Colorado Territory. Although the small Chinese community here faced the same prejudice any Asians did in the West, he could only speculate about the look on the faces of Eastern callers if Chin Lee had answered their knocks.
The man bowed low. “Greetings, Mr. Jack Sheriff.”
He stifled a smile at the address. Chin never quite gotten the hang of exactly what to call Jack when he visited the Stevenson homestead. He supposed this title was as good as any.
“Here to see Mr. Kessler, Chin.”
The butler bobbed his head up and down. “Yes, Mr. Jack Sheriff. Mr. Kessler ready to see you.” He motioned. “Come. This way.”
Chin led him up the staircase, where they turned left. Apparently, Kessler would maintain the same office Burke Stevenson had used. All the furniture remained in place from the previous owner. He figured the mine owner sold the house and all its contents intact.
The Chinaman knocked on the study’s door and popped in his head. “Mr. Jack Sheriff here, Mr. Kessler. I tell him come in?”
Jack stared over Chin’s head and located Kessler. He was seated behind a large oak desk covered with papers, a frown on his florid features. He noted the graying hair and broad shoulders and placed his new employer in his early to mid-forties.
Without raising his eyes, the man spoke. “Come in, Sheriff. I’ll be with you in a moment.” He began to scribble furiously on the page in front of him in short, quick strokes.
Jack stepped into the room but did not take a seat. His mama had raised him with manners. He would sit if invited—not before. He gazed about the room, noting a few new filing cabinets that had not previously been present. Otherwise, the room remained unchanged. He wondered what Kessler did before moving to Silver Bluff. Thick Persian carpets covered the floor and silenced his steps as he walked nonchalantly around the room.
He studied his new employer from the corner of his eye as he did so. The man was handsome in a fleshy way. He’d probably done physical labor at one time but his body spoke of how it had lost its edge over time. New money always seemed to turn a body soft.
Kessler rose and stepped away from the desk, offering his hand. His dark blue suit was well-cut and brought out watery-blue eyes that were slightly bloodshot, even at this early morning hour. Jack had seen eyes such as these before. No wonder the name rang a bell when he’d heard it first mentioned.
“Pleased to meet you, Sheriff Duncan.” Kessler favored him with a tight smile, one that did not quite reach his wintery eyes.
“Call me Jack.”
Kessler eyed him speculatively before he nodded. He did not return the favor of being addressed so informally. Jack immediately sized up William Kessler as a smart man, one who would hold his temper well—and one who would play all the angles. He was sure in that moment that his new boss was somehow related to Ken Kessler.
“Glad you could come on such short notice.” The new mine owner perched on the edge of his desk and lifted a box lid, withdrawing a cigar. He lit it and slowly inhaled.
He did not offer one to his guest.
“Tell me about yourself and Silver Bluff, Jack.” Kessler stood and leisurely walked to the large window. The entire town could be viewed from this perch.
Before he answered, another man entered quietly. He had the same watery blue eyes, though his skin held none of the ruddiness Kessler’s did. His hair was a medium brown, probably Kessler’s color before the gray set in. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. He crossed to Jack.
“Sheriff Duncan, I presume?” He flashed a smile that displayed even, white teeth.
Jack’s stomach roiled but he thrust out his hand and managed a strong grip.
“I’m Ken Kessler. William’s brother.”
The man in front of him was one that was quick to anger and quicker to use his fists. He’d often wondered how Kessler rose to the rank of major. His face usually betrayed his thoughts. Right now, he looked at Jack as if meeting him for the first time. Had the war really been that long ago?
“Good to have you in Silver Bluff, Mr. Kessler.” Jack broke the contact between them, ready to coat his hand in strong lye soap where Kessler had touched it.
“Ah, Ken. The name’s Ken.”
He looked at him steadily. “Then call me Jack.” He waited for any sign of recognition. None came. At that moment he was grateful his own face was made of stone. His mother had often teased him about it.
“Lord Almighty, Jack. If I didn’t know you loved my mincemeat pie so, I’d be in tears right about now. You’d never know it from looking at that face of yours.”
He turned back to the older Kessler in total control. He’d shown little emotion as a child. Since the war he showed even less. If Ken Kessler was too stupid to recall him, he wasn’t going to announce their previous connection.
“You wanted to know about me, sir?” He paused as Kessler nodded, his gaze cutting from his brother and back to Jack as he puffed away on his cigar, its sweet aroma floating through the air.
“I’m a great shot and a hard worker. I was a farmer in western Virginia before the war. Afterward, I moved West like so many others. Tried mining on my own. No huge successes there.” He shrugged. “Was a bounty hunter for over three years. I can track with the best of them.”
Kessler turned his back as Jack spoke, staring out the window again. He wondered if his new boss even listened to him. For a long time, neither man spoke. Finally, the elder Kessler broke the silence.
“Why did you leave that profession?” He moved to face Jack once again.
“Bounty hunting pays well but it’s a transient life. I took to Silver Bluff. The opportunity to be sheriff presented itself at the right time.”
Kessler returned to his seat behind the massive desk. “Your contract runs another six months.”
It was a statement. Not a question. He wondered what Kessler was up to. Already, he’d formed a strong impression of his employer. He knew it was colored by his former association with Ken Kessler but Jack was a good judge of character, nonetheless.
He didn’t like either Kessler.
The few minutes they’d spent together put him on edge. Leopards didn’t change their spots and that included Ken Kessler. The man was a proven cheat, liar, and probable murderer. If Ken worked for his brother, Jack knew neither could be trusted. His instincts never let him down before. His guard was up and would stay that way.
“Unless I’m derelict in my duties, I aim to fulfill the life of the contract. If I’m negligent, it’s within your rights to terminate it.”
He stared hard at Kessler, almost daring him to do so now. He’d thought the new mine owner simply wanted to meet with him as a courtesy. Get some background on the town. Now, he sensed an ulterior motive as the room crackled with tension. It was as if Kessler were sounding him out, wanting to see if his sheriff could be controlled.
Jack decided to go with his gut and lay his cards on the table. If he’d read the look in Kessler’s eyes right, he’d be gone regardless of what he said.
“I’m no puppet on a string, Mr. Kessler. I like my job but I would never lower my standards. I’d rather be fired up front and move on than wallow in corruption.”
The older man laughed harshly. His brother chimed in, sounded like a hyena. “No sense to do that, Sheriff. I’m determined to see Silver Bluff grow in the right direction.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Tell me about the town. What it’s like.” He pointed to his brother. “Neither Ken nor I have ever lived in a place quite so small.”
It surprised Jack that his comments went unanswered, ignored or simply dismissed by William Kessler. He would ponder that later. For now, he turned his focus back to the brothers.
“Started out as a mining camp, close to four years ago. Mr. Stevenson bought up some of the land and set a half-dozen men in place, looking for silver strikes. The camp grew larger as a few claims of silver were made. No new loads discovered so most moved on to fresh sites.”
“Then Stevenson’s men found a mother vein. He set up a large-scale operation, wanting to establish a permanent company. He wasn’t interested in migratory workers. The bank and general store soon followed.”
“And I hear talk of a school?”
“A few of the men are married and brought their families though a rough element still exists. I’m working on smoothing it out. Even though there’s only a handful of school-age children, Mr. Stevenson was a planner. He’d rather have the school in place, if only with a few students, and let it grow naturally. It’ll be finished next month. Methodist church was just built. I heard tell the Baptists might be next. About eight or ten families of homesteaders have arrived, too, with farms on the outskirts of town.”
“A real little community.”
Jack didn’t like Kessler’s sarcastic tone but continued. “We’ve also built a jail. It can house four prisoners. I work out of an office there."
Kessler steepled his fingers and nodded. “Good. I want this town run tight as a drum, Jack. Silver Bluff may be in for big things. Tell our sheriff about this, Ken.”
Ken Kessler sat up straighter in his chair. “I just got back from Denver. Word there is all about statehood. Most of the politicians predict statehood within five to six years. Enough people will have moved in by then to write a state constitution and apply for admission to the U.S. The railroad’s key, you know.”
Jack nodded. “Denver’s grown by leaps and bounds in the five years I’ve been here.”
Ken’s perfect smile flashed again. “That very railroad may run a connecting branch through Silver Bluff in the next few years. If it did, we’d be on the map. A real boomtown. Who knows how big it could get?”
William Kessler interrupted. “That’s why I want a town with the lid on it. I need a man who’ll keep things on the straight and narrow. I do not want trouble. Ever. Think you can handle that, Sheriff?”
Before he could answer, Chin Lee burst through the door. “Mr. Jack Sheriff! Come quick! Mr. Lowell, he gone and got drunk again. He gonna shoot his stinkin’ mule, he says.”
Jack placed the worn hat on his head. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Kessler. Ken. Casey Lowell gets liquored up about once a month and threatens to shoot his mule Gertrude every time. I need to throw him in the jail and let him sleep it off.”
As he took his leave, he caught a knowing glance between the Kessler brothers.
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