Outlaw Muse (Sagebrush Brides Book 3)
A woman shattered by events in her past, struggling to find the only family she has.
A man broken in spirit, trying to move forward after the death of his muse.
Together—on a journey fraught with danger—they begin to heal, thanks to love.
Separated from her twin during the Orphan Train selection, schoolmarm Serena Sullivan searches for her brother Bill over fifteen years. Just as she gets a solid lead on his whereabouts, she is railroaded by a crooked sheriff and set to hang for the murder of the sheriff’s best friend.
English playwright Daman Rutledge comes to the American West on business for his aristocratic brother when he witnesses a woman about to be executed. On impulse, he rescues the beautiful stranger and goes on the run with her. Along the way Daman finds the muse he’s been missing and loses his heart to the raven-haired beauty with haunting amber eyes.
As they try to escape the long arm of the law, Daman seeks to prove Serena’s innocence before it’s too late. They find love—and the truth—on a journey that changes their lives.
Release date: December 7, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
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Outlaw Muse (Sagebrush Brides Book 3)
Orphan Train bound west—1859
Serena awoke, the scream on her lips. She still felt the rats running over her head, paws tangling in her long, dark hair. While the train rumbled on, she forced the nightmare from her. She wasn't in New York anymore. The rats were far behind them. Her body slowly relaxed in the wooden seat that she had occupied for three days.
She glanced at Bill. Her ten-year-old twin slept peacefully, a mischievous grin on his thin face, black hair spilling across his forehead. She brushed it back, wondering if he dreamed of another successful pickpocketing exploit.
Serena looked around the railcar. Close to a hundred street urchins had been packed into this portion of the train, headed to Missouri and a new life. She had asked why this particular state and Miss Tinney had told her that Missouri was the central location of many rail lines, with hundreds of farming communities nearby.
Serena stretched her cramped legs, pushing against the small cardboard suitcase that contained her gifts from The Children's Aid Society, a clean if slightly worn blue pinafore and matching gingham dress, along with a free Bible.
Miss Tinney entered the compartment, clapping her hands. She began walking up and down the aisle, shaking children awake.
“We've arrived, boys and girls,” she called out in a singsong manner that grated on Serena's nerves. It's Friday, your Day of Reckoning.”
Sleepy children rubbed their eyes and yawned. The chaperone continued with instructions.
“Let us wash our faces and change into our clean clothes. We must brush our hair and look lively.” Miss Tinney sighed dramatically. “Oh, you are such lucky boys and girls. Some of you will soon be among the chosen. You'll have new, loving, Christian families with all you could ever want to eat.”
The woman patted a small girl on the shoulder. “Why, I'll bet they'll even provide you with shoes!”
She clapped her hands rapidly again and smiled, urging the children to a washbasin in the next car. “Hop to it, my little angels. We must rinse our faces to look our best.”
Serena turned to whisper a snide remark to Bill but stifled a laugh instead. Bill had snoozed through Miss Tinney’s entire talk. She envied him this talent. Her brother had also slept through many of Papa's drunken spells, while he blubbered nonsense for hours at a time. Bill even slumbered during the frequent arguments that occurred between their parents over the lack of money before Papa's death a year ago.
How Bill had slept through Mama's labored wheezing astounded Serena. The sound still gave her chills as she remembered the way Mama had struggled to breathe.
She nudged Bill awake. His eyes immediately went to his feet to see if he still wore his shoes. It was the first thing those who possessed a pair did. Shoes were a valuable commodity. She and Bill were among the few on the orphan train who owned shoes that actually fit, thanks to Bill's enterprising nature and ability to lift items when needed.
“We need to wash and dress in our spare set of clothes. Miss Tinney wants us looking our best.”
Bill snorted. “I'd rather be hawking newspapers or in a coffee cellar drinking, smoking, and gambling, Sis.”
“Hush!” Serena hissed. “No one will take you if they hear you talking that way. That means they won't take me, either. Remember, we want a home together.”
She haughtily stuck her nose in the air, hoping her angry tone did not betray the hope she had of their being chosen at this first stop. Serena longed for a true home, one that was clean and peaceful, even filled with books. Not the hovel they had always known, where a dirty mattress on the floor served as the bed they shared.
She hoped their new foster family would be as nice as Miss Tinney promised. Serena had grown tired of Mama's brother, Ralph, smacking them when Mama wasn't looking. It didn’t surprise her when Uncle Ralph vanished once Mama became seriously ill. Serena doubted that they’d ever see him again.
Serena continued with her instructions to her brother. “No talk of gangs, either.”
“But they’re how we avoided street violence,” Bill protested earnestly. “The gangs are our family, Sis.”
“Not anymore. These farmers won't understand the life we come from. It's as foreign to them as living in China would be to us. Let's just make the best of it.”
Her twin sniffed. “Without Mama, you mean.”
His mournful tone made Serena realize that her brother thought Mama already dead.
She slipped a hand into her pocket and fingered the slip of paper signed by Mama. Serena had read it so often she knew its contents by heart.
This is to certify that I am the mother and sole legal guardian of Serena and Bill Sullivan. I hereby of my own free will agree for The Children’s Aid Society to provide a home until they are both of age. I hereby promise not to interfere in any arrangements the Society makes but request they remain together if the chance for adoption arises.
A tear slipped from Serena's eye. She, too, knew in her heart that Mama was dead by now. The Children’s Aid Society lady had written out the pledge, while Mama lay in bed. Serena had helped Mama sit up and after a horrible coughing fit, she guided her mother's hand in signing the document. Mama then collapsed onto the bloodstained pillow as the woman took the paper from her hands.
Serena reached into her other pocket for the envelope with Mama's name on it. Mama had addressed it herself and told Serena to send news once they'd been chosen by their new family.
But her pocket was empty.
She shot to her feet, panic racing through her. It had to be here. She couldn't have lost it. She turned to Bill, suspicious he was keeping his pickpocket skills in practice. Her brother innocently combed his hair, trying to make his dark cowlick lie flat.
Suddenly, Miss Tinney appeared in the aisle next to her. Serena saw sympathy in the thin woman's watery blue eyes and realized who had taken the envelope.
Very softly, the sponsor said, “You won't need it where you're going, Serena.”
“—cannot care for you now. She will never get back on her feet. You don't want a life of selling matches or rags or sweeping crosswalks, do you?” Miss Tinney shook her head sadly. “I've seen some girls beg for money on the streets or . . . even worse.”
The woman shuddered and Serena knew exactly what worse meant. It was selling the only thing left.
She was street smart enough to understand this final, desperate act. In fact, it was one of the chief reasons she had agreed with Mama to go on the orphan train. Serena had seen children as young as five arrested as vagrants. She knew they were thrown into cells with hardened adult criminals. She'd listened on the streets and heard the stories. She couldn't live that way. Neither could Bill.
Miss Tinney interrupted her thoughts. “Hurry, child. You, too, Bill Sullivan. You must be presentable.” She smiled at Serena. “Remember, your mother loves you very much. She surrendered custody to ensure your survival and future happiness.”
Serena nodded. She tidied her hair and changed clothes in her seat, turning her back to the car's occupants as she peeled off her wrinkled dress and quickly replaced it with the one in her cheap valise. Poverty led to a loss of modesty. After she layered the pinafore on top of her dress, she looked over at Bill buttoning his fresh shirt. He brushed back the hair from his eyes.
“Do I look ready?” he asked, his voice small.
She grinned at him. “You look wonderful. I know someone kind will want us.”
“Maybe,” he whispered hopefully, “they'll even have a dog.”
The train began to slow and within half a minute, it came to a complete stop. Serena reached for Bill's hand and gripped it, grabbing her suitcase in the other. They followed the procession of children from the train out onto the platform.
Mr.. Addison was at the front, his prominent Adam’s apple protruding from his white dress shirt and tie. Serena was glad Mr. Addison wasn't up for adoption. She was sure no one would want the bony, horse-faced man.
Still, he had been kind to them on the trip out west, always making sure each child had something to eat at the various stops. Serena listened carefully as he gathered the group of orphans around him, his voice carrying through the crowd.
“We are about to begin the distribution. Remember that we have many stops ahead. If you are not chosen here, you will find a good home later down the road. There are many, many families who seek to share their love and their homes with those less fortunate.”
He looked across the sea of hopeful faces. “Chins up. Shoulders down. Single file, please. And no tomfoolery.”
Serena thought that they marched off as soldiers going to war. Bill released her hand to walk behind her. She knew he'd have trouble keeping pace with his clubfoot so she stepped from the line and pulled him aside.
“We’re in no rush, are we?” She winked at him.
Bill relaxed. “Guess not.”
They began walking beside the line, which slowly passed them, until they fell in at the rear. Bill hesitated a moment.
“You don't have to wait for me, Sis.” He swallowed, a look of hurt in his eyes. “If you find a family that wants you and not me, I'll understand.”
His eyes fell to his misshapen right foot, cloaked in a boot two sizes larger than the one on his left.
“No!” Serena said fiercely. “We stick together. We are twins. They can't separate us. They wouldn't dream of it.” She gripped her brother's shoulders. “I won't let them. Do you hear me?” She took his hand again and squeezed it encouragingly.
Bill beamed, her words reassuring him. “You’re right. Sullivans stay together. Let's catch up.”
They hurried to rejoin the line, which now filed past the train depot and onto a main thoroughfare. Serena glanced around, used to tall buildings and streets teeming with people all crowded together, jostling one another as they passed. Here it was different—all wide and open. The blue sky above them was clear, with clouds of cotton scattered across it.
What surprised her most was the quiet. She was used to the sounds of heavy industry, the cries of newsies hawking their papers, the smells of the food wafting from pushcarts. Instead, these streets were lined with people along both sides. Some whispered, while others merely gawked at the line of orphans who followed Mr. Addison, their Pied Piper, to the town hall.
As they passed, Serena caught snippets in the air.
“I took a boy that lasted three months. He didn't suit so I gave him up.”
“I heard they drift from farm to farm. Even go back to New York, some do.”
“Bad blood’s in ‘em, I say. They’re nothing but trouble.”
“Street urchins. Criminals. Every one of them. I wouldn't have one in my home.”
“I won't let my Lola Mae talk to them. Told her teacher that, too.”
Serena's stomach twisted into tight knots. As the line paraded before the inhabitants of this nameless town, she realized this idea had been a mistake. At ten, she knew all about mistakes.
“Come along, boys and girls,” Miss Tinney chirped, urging the stragglers to increase their pace. “Hurry now.”
The children entered the town hall, which was packed with people. Serena caught a glimpse of the crowd. They proved a more favorable impression than the people gathered outside. Those present looked eagerly at the new arrivals, even smiling and nodding at them.
She began to relax. These were the families who really wanted them, not the gossips on the street. She followed the others onto the raised platform at the front of the room. Scanning the sea of faces, she wondered if a new home awaited her and Bill in this town. She looked at her fellow travelers, weary yet eager.
A portly man in a dark suit rose to address the crowd. “As you know, Reverend Alben, Mayor Moore, and I were appointed to check on the qualifications of all families petitioning for a child.” He smiled at the group. “You all passed.”
A ripple ran across the room, murmuring approval.
“Even Mallory, Doc?”
Laughter sprinkled among those gathered.
The doctor replied, “Especially Mallory. Now you, Mr. Griffin, barely made it by the skin of your teeth.”
Good-natured laughter erupted. It gave Serena a sense of calm. She took Bill's hand and squeezed it.
“Please remember to be sensitive to these children's needs. Many have faced parental death through disease, industrial accidents, even starvation. Some have been neglected or abused. But all need your love. Each child, if a parent or guardian is living, has a signed release for placement. You will have a chance to speak to them shortly. They will accompany you home on a trial basis. Legal adoption is not required. Any child may choose to leave if he or she so desires.”
A ripple of whispers broke out among the orphans. No one had told them this.
“See, Bill, if we don't like it, we can leave,” she told her twin.
Mr. Addison waved a hand to quiet the children.
The physician continued. “The children are expected to work and contribute to the household in which they are placed. You, in turn, promise to house, clothe, feed, and educate them as your own. We shall begin the process.”
Mr. Addison rose and introduced each orphaned by name, giving an account of every child as he or she stepped forward for approval. Serena heard her name called and, as if in a dream, moved up and turned in place as she’d been instructed to do.
Bill’s turn arrived. He limped forward but stood proudly. She sensed a change in the atmosphere of the room. Gritting her teeth, she went to stand beside her brother, her arm going around his thin shoulders.
“We are twins and we go together,” she announced defiantly. Her voice sounded much stronger than she thought possible. Her shaking knees threatened to give out from under her.
“Thank you, Serena,” Mr. Addison said and motioned them back. Thankfully, he didn't dispute her words. He finished his introductions and then proclaimed, “You are free to visit with the children at this point.”
A sudden rush descended upon them. Serena repeated her name and age over and over, smiling politely, sick to her stomach. She turned and saw muscles being squeezed and teeth being inspected, much as she'd read happened at slave auctions.
A man walked up to Bill and barked, “Open your mouth.”
Bill complied and the man thrust filthy fingers inside, rubbing them along Bills gums. Her brother gagged and then bit the man.
“Incorrigible,” the dirty farmer announced and stepped over to another boy.
She smoothed her pinafore and stood tall, hoping her new outfit and good posture would attract the attention of a nice couple. She spied a tall, sober man staring at her from across the room. Serena smiled brightly, knowing Mama always told her she looked pretty when she did so. The man gazed at her with longing and she wondered if he only had boys and had always wanted a little girl of his own. It made her wish even harder that she and Bill might be chosen at this very first stop by his family.
He looked at the plain woman next to him and gave her a slight nod. Serena hoped that meant the woman, who must be his wife, would come over and talk with her. She glanced to Bill to tell him but had to wait since a rotund farmer spoke to her twin and she didn’t want to interrupt.
Someone tapped her shoulder. She turned her head and smiled. It was the homely woman with huge jowls that stood before her. She glanced and saw the man watching again. She smiled widely at him and the corners of his mouth turned up. Her heart skipped a beat, knowing she'd gotten the solemn man to smile.
“Hands,” the woman commanded.
Serena held out her hands, turning the palms up, then back over for inspection. The woman studied her from head to toe before motioning over her husband. He crossed the room accompanied by a gangly boy of perhaps fifteen or sixteen.
Serena hadn't noticed the boy. Excitement ran through her as she looked at the young man as a potential brother-to-be. He eyed her as well, his eyes running up and down her. She swallowed nervously, hoping he approved of her as a younger sister. She wondered if the couple would give their own child any say in the matter and then worried the boy might resent having a new brother and sister.
Her thoughts raced as her heart pounded. Would they take her and Bill? Should she tell them what a hard worker they both could be? Miss Tinney had made clear to all children on the orphan train that working on the farms would be a large part of why they were chosen. Fertile land in Missouri had brought many farmers to the state. While she and Bill had never seen a farm, much less done chores on one, they were all too familiar with hard work.
She wanted to explain all this to the family before her but her mouth went dry. The words wouldn't come. She realized nerves were getting the best of her and hoped she hadn't ruined their chance for going home with this—or any other—family today.
The man studied her wordlessly, his brow creasing. His face was burned brown from years in the sun, lines etched deeply into his skin. Brown stained his mouth, as well. Serena experienced a pang of jealousy. She loved chocolate candy and wished the man would offer her a piece.
Then he turned his head slightly and spit a stream of soggy tobacco. Serena realized in horror the stains were from chewing tobacco. She focused on the wet spot shining on the wooden planks, darken in color, and knew she could never live with a man who had such for little regard for his own town hall.
“She’ll do,” the man said to his wife and turned to go.
Panic seized Serena as the woman thrust out her hand. “Give me your papers. You'll learn to speak German.”
“No,” Serena said softly.
The man turned back and stared at her, his black eyes cold. “You won't sass your mother.” He jammed a hand into her pockets, pulling out the custody document and handing it to his wife.
“B-but,” Serena stammered, “my brother. Bill. We are twins. We’re to be adopted together. Mama said so. It's all in the agreement. We aren't to be separated.”
The farmer gave her a steely gaze. “No one’s adopting you, Missy. You'll simply come and work for us. We’ll only provide what’s required by the law.”
He glanced over at Bill’s clubfoot, a sneer on his face. “But no cripples. And no runts. They’re no good for farming.”
Miss Tinney and Mr. Addison were already rounding up those unfortunates not chosen at the first stop, Bill among them. She heard the adults promising there'd be more families down the line and not to worry, for every child would eventually be chosen in the long run.
As he was led away, Bill gave her a sad look and shook his head. He mouth to Serena to go. By his dejected posture, she knew he had given up. They’d had several discussions about how difficult it might be for them to be adopted because of his deformed foot but she had always assured Bill it wouldn't be a problem. He had learned to compensate since birth for the malady. True, he walked with a limp and more slowly than others, but that didn't matter.
She tried again. “His clubfoot has never gotten in the way. It doesn't make him tired. Bill is smart. We’re both strong and good workers. Bill might even be small for his age but he's got plenty of stamina.”
Her pleas fell on deaf ears. Serena found herself being dragged away. She clawed at the gnarled hands of the tall farmer, trying to win her release.
“I don't want to come with you,” she pleaded. “Let me stay with my brother. Please. I can't leave him. I can't leave my twin.”
The man turned, glanced around, and then slapped her, clutching her arm tightly as Serena crumpled to the floor. The woman and boy had blocked the blow from the bustling crowd.
Or so they thought.
She saw her twin rushing back toward her, his quick hobbling as fast as any other boy’s run. A smile broke out as she watched him raced to her rescue.
Bill reached her and fell to the ground, wrapping his thin arms around her, clinging tightly. Then he sprang up without notice and began pummeling the man who'd slapped her, fists flying.
The farmer's son lifted Bill off his feet and pinned his arms so Bill began kicking, landing a hard blow in the farmer’s groin. The man doubled over in pain but his murderous eyes never left Bill. Serena was afraid the man might kill her brother as he straightened and took a menacing step toward Bill.
Leaping to her feet, she blocked the farmer's path. “Please. Don't hurt him. I'll go with you. I'll go quietly. No trouble. I promise.”
She faced Bill. “You need to go. Now. I'll be fine. Just . . . go.”
Her twin gave her a final look. “If that's what you want.”
Yes. That's what I want,” she lied, knowing it was the last time she would be able to protect him.
Her throat grew raw, swelling with emotion. Bill limped away from her without further protest. Tears formed in Serena's eyes as she saw the remaining orphans marched back down the aisle and out the door. Bill joined them, hobbling along. He turned and met her gaze, tears streaming down his own cheeks.
“Be glad I want you, Missy,” the farmer said through gritted teeth. “It's certain your own mother didn't.”
Serena went numb inside, wanting to protest. Somehow, she knew in this world of adults it would do no good. She was led out to a buggy and thrust up into a seat. She sat mutely as the rest of the family climbed in and her new master took hold of the reins.
She no longer had her parents, her brother, or a single friend. She was alone. With total strangers. But she would escape them one day.
Serena vowed she would never give up on reuniting with Bill.
Daman reached for Daphne out of habit, only to find her not there. Why after a year apart did he continue to do so?
His head might split in two this time. He lay quietly, taking shallow breaths, and then remembered why he ached so. It wasn't his usual drunken hangover, though they'd become too numerous to count. Ever since Daphne left him, so had his muse. He was a playwright without an original thought. He hadn't scribbled a decent line since his lover had announced she was marrying that rotund, obscenely rich, Italian count.
The only thing Daman excelled at these days was drinking. He could go head to head with anyone, choice of liquor be damned. At the end of the night—or early the next morning—he would be the only one left standing. Until he fell into bed and awoke with a thundering headache and a lack of self-respect.
No, this little spree had become far worse than the usual fare. Worse because his sweet Daphne was now gone.
He remembered the excitement her letter contained when she had written him that she was with child. Good old Daph, the most beautiful and rising talent on the London stage—and all she wanted to be was a wife and mother to a brood of brats. Daman had denied her that pleasure. He had showered her with gifts, cast her in two of his three plays, and made sweetest love to her—but he wouldn't marry her and give her the children she’d longed for.
He had tried to explain it to her. That it wasn't the done thing. People in Polite Society did not marry actresses. They simply made them their mistresses, which was a far better option in his opinion. Mistresses were full of romance and sensuality, champagne and moonlight—not the drudgery of responsibility and the decaying relationship that followed the marriage vows.
But Daphne had called his hand, up and walked out on him, refusing to understand his needs. The count was much older than she but he had money and was willing to give her his name and a title, two things Daman didn't have. Daphne said no one in Italy would know she had been on the stage. She had married the man the next day and lived in a glorious villa outside Rome. She wrote Daman often, describing how happy she was. She loved the swelling of her belly and ankles, the softening of her face, even the constant trips to a chamber pot.
Her letters amused him but they didn't inspire him. Nothing had. Daman sensed his talent drying up. An indulgent older brother, feeling guilty, had bankrolled his first two plays. The third had been a real success and Daphne and his own star rose together in the romantic comedy, so unlike the numerous melodramas of the day.
Now, Daman wish to rip the hair from his head, so great was his frustration in looking at a blank page that always stared back, taunting him. He guessed he would never literally tear out his hair since he would hate being bald and was a coward where pain was concerned.
Unlike Thomas, the military man. Look at what his half-brother had lived with for years—the pain of a wife loss to pneumonia—and no legs, those having been sliced away in a freak carriage accident on the way to said wife’s burial.
So, Daman did what he excelled at. He drank. And last night, upon receiving the news of Daphne's death, his intake was far greater than previous episodes. He hated that she never got the life she richly deserved. He had denied her what she'd most desired and now, she’d died in childbirth.
He cursed under his breath, swearing off spirits and women. Especially the alcohol. It had been the ruin of his father, and above all else, Daman refused to be like that monster. No, no more liquor, no more women, and especially no brats. He didn't like them and had nothing to give them at any rate. As a third son, his inheritance had been a pittance. He had spent it years ago. And now, though a gentleman in name, he was having trouble making a living.
Daman sat up but the pounding in his head caused him to whimper. He eased back into his pillows, promising himself he'd never get in such a mess ever again. He licked dry lips and decided that if he were to live, he had better sit up and investigate where a glass of water could be found. Before he died of dehydration.
A loud banging at the door to his rooms cause a moan to escape. Daman fell back onto his bed. It was all too much. He'd get up tomorrow when he felt better. Drawing the covers up, he turned on his side. The throbbing was only slightly better in this position but he actually thought he might live to see another sunrise. That is, if he ever got up in time for one.
The rapping continued steadily and Daman drew enough strength to yell, “Go away.”
It was the wrong thing to say. Suddenly, the door burst open, slamming against the wall. Staccato footsteps echoed along the floor until they stopped at his bed.
Daman opened his eyes and faced the intruder, the bedcovers ripped away. He saw his much older half-brother standing there, a stormy look on his face. Suddenly, Edward’s features softened, though.
“I heard about Daphne. I'm sorry, Daman.”
Fury ran through his veins. “I don't need your pity, Edward. Dissolute rakes don't want it. You're a saint. Thomas is a martyr. But I don't need anyone's sympathy. Hell, I'm a bloody third son who refused to answer the call to the Church. No one should feel sorry for me .”
Daman rolled away, turning his back on his only family member. “Leave me alone. I'll die poor and drunk in a garret if I choose to do so.”
Edward sighed. Daman was all too familiar with that particular sigh. He had heard it enough times after frustrating the sibling old enough to be his father.
“Quit wallowing in self-pity, Daman. You must shave and bathe. I need you at home.” Edward’s voice dropped as his eyes burned into diamonds. “Thomas has died.”
Instantly, Daman sobered. He sat up, tossing the covers from him, swinging his feet to the floor. “He’s dead?”
Edward nodded. Daman felt all the distance between them, the eighteen years hovering more heavily than usual. There'd been twelve years between him and Thomas, who had done his best with his young half-brother, teaching Daman to hunt and ride.
Grief overwhelmed him. Daphne dead. His sister, Cynthia, too. Now, the once robust Thomas, who had wasted away these last few years, saying he had nothing to live for, was also gone. It was too much for Daman to bear.
“We need each other now, Daman. Now more than ever. We’re all the family that's left. I need you, Brother. For the funeral and the days beyond that.
“In fact, I want you to go to Texas for me, Daman. It's time you took an interest in the family business.”
Daman wondered if anyone had ever died of a sore arse. He decided it wouldn't be him. God wouldn't be that merciful. The Almighty had already made him suffer through the eight longest weeks in his life, all in the saddle atop a cow pony sporting the grand name of American Quarter Horse. Riding all day, every day, was something Daman had avoided like the plague in his twenty-eight years. He probably aged another twenty-eight all the way from Texas to Kansas.
The trail boss called it the long drive. More like the long way to hell. Thinking about it, Daman believed hell might be more pleasant as he looked around the flat plains of Kansas and inhaled the scent of stinking cattle.
He might never put another bite of beef in his mouth ever again. Or beans. Especially beans. Cookie fed the cowboys beans at every meal up the trail from Texas. Had even shoveled pie made from beans down their throats. Daman ate his fill at every stop, sucking up the bean juice with sourdough bread, slurping down the thick sludge Cookie proudly called coffee. Daman had no choice. Long days in the saddle amounted to a cross between starvation and boredom. Bad meals became the highlight of his day.
No, actually, untroubled sleep was what he had learned to enjoy most, something that deserted him when Daphne did. First and foremost, he'd come to appreciate sleep simply because he was out of that bloody saddle for a few hours. Second, the stars shone brightly out on the prairie, twinkling in the night's sky with a rare beauty as he studied them before dropping off into oblivion. Each night on the trail Daman slept soundly, no alcohol coursing through his system for the first time in months. He slept the magical sleep of the bone-weary.
Maybe this trip had been worth it, saddle sores and all.
Daman looked ahead at the dusty line on the horizon. His pulse quickened when he spied something that looked like civilization. Knowing it would hurt like Hades, he still spurred on his horse. The horse responded by trotting along until he reached Mose, one of the swing riders.
Daman eased back on the reins as he stepped the horse next to Mose’s painted one.
“Are we finally here?” he asked, not bothering to hide his grumpiness.
The cowboy’s smile shone like ivory next to his sleek, ebony skin. “We ‘bout there, Mr. Daman.”
“It's about bloody time.”
Mose laughed softly. “I guess Sappy done lost ten dollars to me.”
Daman's brows arched. “I sense a bet?”
“You done sense right Mr. Daman. Sappy's sure you wasn't gonna make it. I's sure you was.”
Daman grinned. “I'm glad you had the confidence in me, Mose. I must say I didn't.”
Mose shook his head. “When push comes to shove, I knows you gots it in you.” The big man touched his chest. “You got some big heart, Mr. Daman. I think if ‘n you want, you can do whatever you make your mind up to do.”
The grizzled cowboy’s words touched Daman. “Thank you, Mose.”
Mose squinted and looked to the head of the herd. “Looks like you be needed at the front. Mr. Jackson will be wanting you to go with him and work the deal.”
“What does that mean?”
Mose adjusted his hat, pulling it lower onto his brow. “We be staying with the herd just outside Abilene. Lot of cattle coming in this time of year. Town’ll be jumping. You and Mr. Jackson’ll ride in and hook up with a buyer, that's all.”
“And Mr. Jackson is skilled at this business, I'll assume?”
Mose nodded. “He'll get your brother a good price.”
The cowboy looked around. “We be coming in with over thousand head, I imagine. Ain't lost too many along the way. Your brother’s gonna make a nice profit.”
“Then I'm off to negotiate.”
Daman tipped his hat to Mose and went bobbing along to where the trail boss rode at the head of the herd. Jackson nodded at him and then looked back at the prairie in front of them.
“We've almost arrived in Abilene, Mr. Rutledge. The railhead is our final destination. I expect you'll want to come along while I negotiate a fair price for the earl.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. My brother wanted me to observe each step of the process and report directly back to him.”
Daman kept to himself that Edward also wanted him to use the profit made on this herd to look into purchasing land further west. Rumors already abounded in England that Lord Dunraven was buying up half of Colorado territory by having out of work cowboys file on homestead land. They would then transfer the land to Dunraven’s control.
Edward didn't want to fleece any Americans but he had heard land was cheap and plentiful in the American West. He had explained to Daman that as fast as the country was growing and as many natural resources as had been discovered, it was an investment opportunity worth looking into. Thus, he dispatched Daman to see the same scheme through.
Edward had said it might help Daman get over his depression, which had only grown blacker with Daphne's and Thomas’ deaths back-to-back. Daman went to Texas out of respect for his older brother, who had already added to the family coffers by investing in this Texas cattle business. It suddenly became the overnight rage with the nobility in both England and Scotland. Besides, what else did Daman have to do? It wasn't as if he'd been turning out any new plays.
The past two months certainly took his mind off his troubles and his lack of creative output. Scorching days of dust followed by drenching rainstorms and hail obliterated rational thought from any sane man's mind. Couple that with rattlesnakes, the fear of attacking savages, and the occasional stampede, and Daman just felt happy to be alive, sore arse and all. Especially since two cowboys had lost their lives along the trail during this cattle drive, one in a Stampede and another to snake bite.
With Abilene now in his sights, all he could think about was a real bath and a shave. And he’d burn the godawful clothes he’d lived in on the trail. He never wanted to get on a horse again. Ever. He had hated riding since he was a child and he knew his arse might never be the same again after all these weeks in the saddle. Even the insides of his thighs were raw and bloody where they rubbed against the horse and his stiff denim pants hour after hour on the trail. Mose gave him a salve to use which provided some relief but Daman knew the best cure was to keep his two feet on the ground, not swaying in a bloody saddle, choking on dust as he rode drag.
He continued beside the trail boss, not wanting to seem too eager when they found a buyer for the herd. Jackson led him to a large saloon on the main thoroughfare of Abilene. After watering their horses, they hitched them to the rail in front of the saloon.
Daman gritted his teeth as he moved toward the door. Blisters throbbed inside his cowboy boots, which had never seemed to break in properly. He locked his jaw against the pain and strode confidently into the saloon after Jackson, glad to hear someone banging out a recognizable tune such as Beautiful Dreamer on a piano. He was tired of the harmonica from the trail, especially since one of the cowboys who played it only had three songs in his repertoire. Daman longed for chamber music and a good Wagner opera but he'd settle for the out of tune piano at the moment.
As he walked a few steps into the bar, a long stream of tobacco juice sailed just in front of his chest, landing in a brass bowl with a funnel top. Daman glanced down to see the wooden floor below stained badly with near misses. In fact, the floor looked dangerously slippery. Never one blessed with great balance, Daman carefully picked his way to the bar.
“Two tarantulas,” Jackson barked to the barkeep, who slipped a couple of shot glasses onto the bar and filled them with whisky. Jackson locked his hand around the small glass and knocked back the amber liquid with satisfaction.
Placing a bill on the bar, Daman motion to the bartender and said, “Leave the bottle.”
Daman wrapped one hand around the bottle and the other around the shot glass that he didn't plan to sip from anytime soon. He had been away from spirits long enough to realize how they clouded his judgment. He’d allow the trail boss to drink the whisky instead. Jackson led them to an empty table in the crowded room. They sat and Daman’s eyes skimmed the place.
Even at ten-thirty in the morning, the saloon did booming business. A long, scarred bar ran along one side of the main room, a good dozen men leaning against it, sipping their brews. Countless rickety chairs gathered around small, round tables scattered throughout the bar. Large pictures covered the walls, all showing women in some state of undress.
Jackson murmured, “We’ll probably do business with Sampson.” He indicated a large man with a silver mane of hair and bushy mustache to match. Jackson downed another whisky and said, “I'm going to work the room.”
Daman sat back and watched the lean trail boss go from table to table for close to two hours, indulging in a little gossip, dickering over prices, and drinking a beer or two before he worked his way over to Sampson. Sampson's table of cronies cleared as Jackson sat. Soon, the two men hovered with heads close for over half an hour before Jackson stood and they shook hands.
Daman's curiosity at the interplay ended when Jackson and Sampson came across the room to join him. They seated themselves at his table and shared the price Sampson was willing to part with. It exceeded the amount per head that Edward had hoped for. Although he had nothing to gain from this transaction, Daman couldn't help but be pleased for his older brother.
“Will you care to inspect the herd?” Daman inquired. He didn't know much about business but he supposed a person spending a great deal of money should see what he purchased.
Samsung guffawed. “Already sent my boy to do it while Jackson and I were jawing. We done business before. He's a Texan I can trust.”
“Let's head over to the bank, Mr. Rutledge,” Jackson announced. “Mr. Sampson will meet us there and close the deal.”
The two men strolled at a leisurely pace to the bank, Jackson stopping numerous times to chat with fellow cowboys along the street. They met up with this Sampson, who'd arrived just before they did, and thanks to the bank manager, conducted their business with haste in his private office.
Jackson took enough in cash to pay himself and the men on the drive. As trail boss, Jackson road ahead scouting for water, pasture, and campsites. He also checked constantly on provisions, kept meticulous records, assigned duties to the men, and settled any problems among them. Daman had soon realized that the trail boss’ word was law on their journey. Accordingly, Daman thought Jackson more than earned the two hundred and fifty dollars for two months’ work. The man was a professional in every sense of the word.
The cowboys would receive thirty dollars for each month on the trail, while Cookie’s pay exceeded that by another twenty per month. The bank manager gave Jackson enough envelopes for each employee. The trail boss doled out the correct amount to each man accordingly after placing his name on the front of the envelope.
Once he finished counting out the money, Jackson passed the sealed envelopes to Daman. “I thought you might like to distribute these, Mr. Rutledge. I’ll cable Lord Stanhope that we've arrived and notify him of the profit he's made. ”
Daman shook his head. “Go ahead and hit the baths, Mr. Jackson. I'll see the men get their wages and that Edward receives your news. I have a few other details to Telegraph him about.”
Jackson nodded. “Will you be riding back to Texas with us? I run a tight ship so after giving the boys tonight in Abilene, we’ll hit the road tomorrow morning. Always plenty of work back on the ranch and if I leave the boys here, they'll spend all their pay in a couple of days and be left with nothing.”
Daman suppressed a smile.“ I have business in Denver. I believe the rail will take me there.” He held out his hand. “Thank you for your company, Mr. Jackson. I will relay nothing but the best of compliments to my brother.”
Jackson smiled. “My pleasure, Mr. Rutledge.” He shook Daman’s hand. “And that bath sounds awfully tempting.”
They left the bank and parted ways. Daman stopped to send Edward a cable before he headed back to the saloon to retrieve his horse, dreading the last time he'd be on the beast’s back. He took a deep breath and swung into the saddle, ignoring the aches, chafing, and pain in general.
Daman rode back to the town’s outskirts, joining the herd. He gathered the men from his long drive and thanked them for their hard work. He distributed their pay, saving Mose’s envelope for last. He slipped an extra twenty dollars into the cowboy's hand as they shook. Mose frowned deeply.
“Just a little extra for when you hit the saloon and store,” Daman said. “I value all the advice you gave me and the friendship you offered.”
“You don't need to pay me for that,” Mose said flatly, anger sparking in his dark eyes.
Daman was disappointed. “I'm not trying to buy your friendship, Mose. That goes without saying. I'm just showing my appreciation for all you taught me along the trail. Besides, you told me about that special lady back in San Antone. If you'd like, use it to buy her something pretty.”
His friend nodded sagely. “Now that's good advice, Mr. Daman. I believe I can do that.” The cowboy grinned and slapped Daman on the back as he offered him his hand. “Go back to England and find yourself a pretty gal, too.”
“I will do my best, Mose.”
They parted and Daman rode beside the herd as the cowhands drove the cattle forward for the last time. He followed along, watching as they yarded the herd. The hands placed them into pens alongside the rail tracks, where the animals would be shipped out on the next cattle car to Chicago.
Duty finally over, Daman checked on his departure time the next day. Then he made his way along the streets of Abilene, looking for the local post office. He found it easily and smiled with relief when the postmaster handed over his valise, which he’d shipped from Galveston to Abilene. He couldn't wait to get back into his own clothes.
Next, he decided to find a hotel and a bathhouse. His dismay grew when he found the first place he spied booked up. The hotel’s manager directed him to another establishment but he found it also filled to capacity.
And everywhere he turned, drunk cowboys littered the streets. They spilled out from the bath houses, the saloons, the general score store, and beyond. They rode at breakneck speed down the streets of Abilene, hurrahing at the top of their lungs, celebrating the end of their long drives.
Daman thought maybe he could bunk that evening with a local whore at a saloon but he quickly gave up that idea as he entered one. A riot broke out as he stepped inside, with chairs sailing and fists flying and shots ringing out. Daman literally dropped to his knees and crawled from the building , grateful he was in one piece, albeit even grimier than before.
He was dirty, hungry, and tired to the bone. Where could he go? Abilene had become an insane asylum in the space of an hour with hundreds of restless cowboys on the loose, money burning a hole in their pockets. No rest for the weary would be found here.
Daman came up with an idea and trotted his horse down to the local blacksmith’s shed. He slipped from the saddle and found a man with bulging muscles and a thick neck.
“Good day, sir. Might I ask if there is a town nearby where I might find a bath and a room to rent for the night? Somewhere outside this madhouse?”
The smithy finished nailing the shoe onto the horse’s hoof he held and then spoke.
“About six miles west of here is a little farming community. Crombar Creek. The Widow Choate rents out a spare room when it's needed and fries up a nice chicken. Don't know about a bath.”
The thought of chicken after beef and beans sounded like a dream. “Do you have a cart I might rent overnight to reach this place? I would return it tomorrow.”
Daman couldn't stand the thought of bouncing along in his saddle another six miles and back.
The smithy scratched his behind thoughtfully. Daman refrained from visibly grimacing, maintaining a cheery smile.
“Guess I could loan you my buckboard. Here, let's get her hitched up to it and I'll give you directions.”
Within ten minutes, they’d settled up, with Daman giving the blacksmith a rental fee and promising to return the wagon the next day by two, in plenty of time to make his train. He headed out of the madness that was Abilene toward Crombar Creek.
He couldn't wait to find some peace and quiet.
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