Pearl Stout is angry.
Her parents put her on a train to the Arizona frontier to marry a man she's never met and didn't agree to marry. Feeling betrayed and alone, at first, she goes along with their plan. But before long she discovers the freedom that can accompany a pioneering life and grabs onto it with both hands.
Pearl's intended is Hilton Pullman, a local reporter for the Tucson Gazette. He's tired of being alone - his parents died when he was young, and his older brother abandoned him after losing his own fiancée. But when that trouble-making brother, Hank, returns right before the wedding, Hilton’s carefully laid plans are thrown into question.
Will Pearl marry her intended? Or will she forge her own path along the western frontier and discover love along the way?
Inspired by true events.
Release date: January 12, 2018
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 134
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Southeastern Arizona Territory
Harold Carmichael stooped over the cradle, using his worn fingertips to push rock and sand around beneath the cool water’s surface. His eye caught a flash of gold, and he pinched it out with his finger and thumb, grinned and stuck it in a small sack attached to his belt. He dashed the remaining sludge back into the river, took a step forward and scooped up another panful of silt and water.
The rock he sat on seemed to grow colder and harder by the minute and a sharp protrusion stabbed into his right buttock. He stood and straightened, rocking the handle and watching the water slide back and forth in the cradle and sending shafts of rainbow light flashing against the brown of his stained shirt.
Noise from the Mammoth Mine, a cracking and thudding, resounded in the distance. He frowned and tilted his hat back with one hand. Dang mining companies – always swooping in whenever there was a sniff of gold, taking the claim and everything in it away from the small-time prospectors. Didn’t seem right somehow.
The cry of a muleteer and the faint crack of a whip sailed through the still air, echoing over the river. A twenty-mule team hauled the gold to the mill, then hurried back for more every weekday. He’d seen them do it, his eyes had widened with surprise. He’d been there before the mule teams, before the hordes of men descended on the place. Didn’t that count for anything? How could a man compete with a setup like the one they had over at Mammoth now?
He rocked the cradle back and forth once more, watching gold flecks fall through to the bottom of the contraption. All that was left for him and the other men standing in knee-deep water or seated beside him along the riverbank were these tiny specks of metal. Not enough for a man to live on, never mind support a family – though the days of raising littl’uns were far behind him now. Still, he’d always held out hope that one day he’d find the largest nugget in the history of the San Pedro River.
“Hey, Harry – you ‘bout done for the day?” Murdoch’s gravelly voice broke through the chatter of water running over the smooth rounds stones fifty yards downstream.
Harold glanced up at the streaks of gold and pink that painted the horizon beyond the dusty rise, nodded and grunted in assent.
“Thought we might try out that moonshine you been workin’ on …,” Murdoch continued, his voice turning to a whine that made Harry’s eyes roll back in his head. Murdoch was always going on about moonshine. He’d drink up his own by noon and spend the rest of the day feeling around for someone else’s to satiate his thirst.
“Fine, but you’re bringing the food.” He glanced at Murdoch beneath lowered brows and grunted at the man’s toothless grin. At least someone was happy. He’d barely found a lick of gold today, and it seemed each day was worse than the one before. He should give it up – that’s what his wife had told him the day she walked out three years earlier. But he just couldn’t.
He knew he’d likely die there alone, in his worn clothes and sun-baked skin on the shores of the San Pedro. It was time to go, to move on. Maybe he should try Los Angeles. Or the gold fields near Sacramento, though word was they’d dried up decades ago. But maybe …
Murdoch made a strangled sound, and Harold looked up from his cradle. “What is it?”
Murdoch didn’t hear him. He left his cradle leaning to one side and leaped up the bank, still making that strange sound.
Harold’s eyes followed Murdoch’s stare as he slowly stood. He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the setting sun’s glare burning the tops of the bushes on the riverbank. It was hard to see anything with the sun like that in your face – he saw only the fire of orange and yellow with flashes of white.
What was that?
There was a creature – gold, red, orange, he couldn’t say. It was moving fast, then stopped. He squinted against the light and frowned.
Murdoch was moving now, shouting something like, “It’s a ghost, with a wee rider!”
That couldn’t be right. It clearly wasn’t a ghost – Harold could see it with his own two eyes. And if it were a ghost, wouldn’t it look different? He wasn’t sure – he’d never witnessed a ghost before – but he assumed it would be misty-like or making some kind of eerie sound. This one didn’t – it rushed through the brush and undergrowth with the rustle and crash any creature would make.
But it wasn’t any creature he’d ever seen, nor wanted to. It was strange-looking, with wild eyes, a long neck, legs that stretched higher than a man was tall and a horribly distorted body. And what was that on the creature’s back? It looked like a man, a rider with a whip in his hand and a blood-chilling grin.
Harold scurried up the bank to the canvas satchel where he’d stowed his things and retrieved the shotgun that was leaned against a gray tree branch beside the bag. He took aim at the creature, which had dropped its nose to the ground and appeared to be sniffing. His gaze fixed, he bent at the knees and crept forward, anxious to get a closer look. It was ragged and wild-looking, and his heart pounded out a steady rhythm as he looked it over.
Closer now, he could see the rider more clearly. The creature shifted, making the rider’s head loll precariously to one side, its empty eye sockets seeming to glare directly at him.
Harold shouted in dismay and squeezed the trigger, the gun’s recoil against his shoulder making him take a step backwards. The creature took off at a run, its rider bouncing wildly on its back and dropping something in its haste. Another shot rang out, this time from Murdoch’s weapon. He cried in dismay when he missed as well. The two men ran after the disappearing creature, guns pointing skyward.
Harold stopped as he drew close to the thing the creature left behind and approached it carefully, his eyes wide. Murdoch followed two steps behind. “What is it?” he asked, gasping.
Harold tugged his hat off and held it against his chest, his eyes squeezed shut. He shook his head from side to side, as if that would make the sight less real.
“What?” asked Murdoch, peering around him. Then he covered his mouth and reeled backward with a retching cough.
Harold opened his eyes slowly and squatted beside what was clearly a human head. Empty eye sockets made dark shadows in the skull, and a shock of reddish hair and remnants of a beard still covered patches of the chin and cheeks. He put his hat on and backed away. What kind of creature could it have been but a ghost – a red ghost? What else would carry a skeleton rider on its back, dropping half-rotted skulls as it went?
* * *
Pearl Stout gulped the mouthful of water that remained in the tin cup. She peered out across the arid landscape, wrinkling her nose at the dust that had already caused her to sneeze a dozen times in the past hour. She handed the cup back to Stan, the boy who rode up front beside Sam Smothers the stagecoach driver. She’d learned his name quickly, because every time Sam shouted at him, which was often, he cried out, “Staaaaaan!” She giggled at the thought of Sam’s wide-open mouth, his missing front teeth, and his wobbling belly protruding over the belt pulled too tight beneath it.
Then the truth of her journey hit her again, as it had so many times since she’d set out weeks ago from New York City. She was on her way to be married to a man she’d never met, who lived on the frontier in a place called Tucson. What kind of a name was that for a town anyway?
Sam said that they were close through a mouthful of bread when they’d stopped for lunch, but that was two hours ago. Still, it wouldn’t be long until she saw the town that would become her home and the man who’d be her husband.
She took a long, slow breath and frowned. How could her parents do this to her? They’d never given her a choice – if they had, of course she’d have told them she wanted to stay in New York. It was where she was raised, where her family and friends lived. It was home. But they’d ignored all her pleas to let her stay. Her mother hadn’t even had the nerve to face her – she’d hidden in her room and made her older sister Della take her meals upstairs to her so she wouldn’t have to admit to sending her children away.
Her father Septimus Stout was a hard, determined man, and he’d glared over his newspaper at her when she questioned his decision. When she begged to stay, he’d harrumphed, told her it was too late for that, folded his paper under his arm and stalked from the room. She’d cried herself to sleep that night.
When she woke the next morning, she made a decision. She might not get to decide the course of her life, but she could determine how she behaved. And she’d be tarred and feathered before she’d let her parents see her cry again. She hated them in that moment, and when she boarded the westbound train she didn’t even bid them farewell. She’d squared her shoulders, picked up her carpetbag and reticule, and marched into the carriage without so much as a glance back.
“Time to go, folks!” called Sam, hiking his pants up with both hands and patting his generous stomach with a smile.
Pearl stood slowly and smoothed her skirts with her gloved hands. Beneath her boots, a picnic rug lay wrinkled over the hard red ground, dusty footprints tracked across its surface. She sighed with frustration. It seemed they would all be covered in dust before the day was through. The coach, the luggage, her clothing, everything had a fine layer of brown that settled whenever the wind fell or movement ceased.
Her heart lurched and her gut roiled. She didn’t know the man she’d spend the rest of her life with, but she felt a burning anger deep inside just at the idea of him. Who was he to demand she marry him? Wasn’t it her choice who she invited into her life? Wasn’t she a grown woman? Well, if you counted a seventeen-year-old as a grown woman, which it seemed her parents did. They presumed her old enough to marry a stranger, which she figured meant she was old enough to make up her own mind.
But if she didn’t marry him, what then? She had barely enough money left to buy a meal. Her father had been generous enough to give her an allowance for the journey, but nothing more. Maybe he worried his daughters might try to back out of the arrangement if given too much. Or maybe he really didn’t have the money any longer.
As she made her way to the stagecoach, her eyes widened at the thought – could it really be true? Her father, the successful businessman, investor and land developer, had lost it all? He said so, but she’d closed herself off to anything he said as soon as he told her and her older sisters they were to be mail-order brides. Her mother had confirmed his words, then left in a bustle of skirts and a rush of tears to let them process it all alone.
Septimus Stout and his brother and business partner Ulysses had lost their businesses to a swindler, who’d also sullied their names in the process. They’d soon lose the house, the servants, everything. It was difficult for her to imagine her parents and brothers reduced to a life of poverty. And where would they go? Where would they live?
She shook her head and stepped up into the coach, settling carefully on the leather seat. Until that moment, she’d only considered her own plight. Now she began to imagine what the others might be going through. Her sisters Della and Hattie had been shipped off before her to meet their husbands in various parts of the West. And she remembered hearing her parents whisper something about her cousins Effie, Minnie and Lula sharing the same fate. But what about the rest? What would become of her brothers?
Her stomach lurched, and she linked her fingers together to rest her hands on it.
The rest of the group crowded into the coach with her. She pressed herself against the window frame as a large woman in long pants and a man’s shirt and hat squeezed in beside her. She offered the woman a tight smile. “Not long to go now,” she chirped, then winced. The woman made her nervous.
The woman glowered at her through wide-set brown eyes. “Hmph!”
Pearl tried again. “I think I caught your name earlier – was it Bella?”
The woman crossed muscular arms over her generous bosom. “Belle.”
“Belle … that’s a lovely name.”
Belle raised one eyebrow. “And you are?”
Pearl swallowed hard, “I’m Pearl.”
“Nice to meetcha.” She nodded, the short tight curls on her head unmoving.
“You stoppin’ in Tucson?” asked Belle, her face softening. She pronounced it TOO-sahn. Was that how it was supposed to be said?
“I am. And you?”
“Yep. This here’s my brother Pip. We’re from Richmond, Virginia. How ‘bout you?”
Pearl pursed her lips. She hated to tell her story. So far, she’d only told it to the driver before they left, and he’d looked at her with pity in his milky eyes, whistling through the gap where his missing teeth should’ve been. In that moment she realized just how far she’d come down in the world. “Well, I’m from New York City.”
The wagon set off at a slow trundling pace, making the passengers shift. Pearl clutched the windowsill tight to keep from flying into Belle’s generous lap.
“That so?” Belle unfolded her arms, her eyes lit up like sparks from a campfire. “I always wanted to go there.” She turned to her brother and jammed an elbow into his ribcage. “Ain’t you?”
He frowned and rubbed his side. “Huh?”
“Ain’t you always wanted to go to New York? This here’s Pearl, and she’s from New York City!”
“How ‘bout that.” Pip looked far less impressed. He pulled his hat down over his eyes and rested his head against the wall of the coach as if to go to sleep.
Pearl’s brow furrowed. “Well, maybe one day you’ll get there. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.”
Belle tipped her head to one side, her eyes narrowed. “Whyever not? I’d go there in a flash if I thought I could make it.”
“Well, why don’t you?” asked Pearl. “You could take the train – that’s what I did.”
Belle’s eyes clouded over. “I don’t got no more money. Pip and I gotta get jobs in Tucson, else we’ll be beggin’ for scraps ‘fore long. We worked and saved back home just to get the chance to go west, and Tucson was as far west as we had coin for. We’ll work a while, maybe as laborers, see if we like it. Then we might head out to Los Angeles.”
Pearl’s eyes widened as she sighed. “You’re so brave, just deciding to go here or there and making it happen. I can’t even imagine.” She looked at Belle more closely, noting the woman’s smooth brown skin and full lips beneath the layers of grime on her hands and face.
“Well, you are too! You’re on your way to some kind of new adventure in Tucson, ain’tcha?”
Pearl’s stomach churned and she ran a hand over her hair. “No, not exactly. I’m … well, my parents decided I should marry a man in Tucson, and I’m going there now to do it. It wasn’t my choice. I’m nowhere near as adventurous as you.”
Belle didn’t reply for a moment, just arched an eyebrow and settled back in her seat to stare out the window. “Think you’ll go through with it?” she finally asked.
“Go through with what?”
“Marryin’ the man!” she exclaimed, as if indignant at the very idea of doing something she hadn’t set her mind to.
“Well, of course. I mean, I hadn’t thought about it. Father said I should … I suppose I must.”
“Good grief, girl, if you don’t wanna do it, ain’t no one can make you. You’re free, same as Pip and I here are. We weren’t always, but we are now and don’t we know it!” Belle slapped her thigh as she spoke, her eyes flashing. “You always been free, though it don’t seem to me like you understand it. You always do what you’re told?”
Pearl grimaced and nodded.
Belle laughed, a hearty chuckle that filled the coach. “Well, now’s good a time as any to find your own way, make your own choices. You could be buffaloed into marryin’ a man you don’t want and raisin’ his children. Or you could decide to have an adventure.”
“What … kind of adventure?” Pearl asked, her eyebrows pulled low.
Belle leaned closer and whispered, “Any kind you like.”
There was a shout from the driver and the stagecoach swayed dangerously to the right, then the left. It stopped suddenly and flung Pearl at the feet of the man opposite her, her face almost in his lap. He’d been snoozing as they rode and his eyes flew open in alarm, focusing on her upturned face. She gasped and struggled to her feet. “So sorry, Mr. Gunderson.”
He nodded and straightened his vest. “Never mind, Miss Stout. Never mind.”
Before he could say more, there was another cry from outside. Pearl and Mr. Gunderson looked out the window – and her breath caught in her throat. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out. Some thing was there – it looked almost like a horse, but bigger and deformed. Dust swirled around it as it galloped by the coach. And a headless rider clung to its misshapen back!
The coach horses reared up on their hind legs, whinnying across the desert landscape. Belle screamed as Pearl was hurled back into her seat, her head thudding hard against the frame of the coach. She clutched her head even as the wagon toppled onto its side and she and Belle crashed onto Pip with cries of terror. Mr. Gunderson managed to get on his feet and help pull Pip free.
Between gasps, Pip’s voice sounded strangled. “What de debbil was that? Mr. Gunderson, Miss Stout, what you see?”
The noise of the horses trying to regain their footing, clawing and neighing in fright, turned Pearl’s stomach. “I don’t know,” she said with a glance at Mr. Gunderson’s pale face. “Some strange beast.”
Mr. Gunderson swallowed hard. “With a rider on its back.”
Pip looked from him to Pearl and back again. “What kinda rider?” he demanded.
Pearl shivered. “A headless one.”
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