About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Did he hear gunshots? Caleb Craig jerked toward the window. "Listen." He held up his hand, trying to cut short the storekeeper's detailed description about the young woman who had stepped out of the store as Caleb and his son, Teddy, went in.
"Lilly Bell," the storekeeper had said. Twin sister to Rose, the two were the least alike, though to be sure, both were sweet and generous and loyal. Their parents were elderly, but that didn't mean they were feeble. Oh, far from it.
A series of pops convinced Caleb someone had set off firecrackers. They were not as deadly as gunshots, but they were enough to start a dangerous chain reaction.
Before he reached the window, Caleb knew it had already started. Several women screamed. A deeper voice called out. The rattle and creak of wood and harnesses signaled frantic horses.
"You stay here," he ordered five-year-old Teddy, and then raced through the door.
The young woman, whose virtues the storekeeper expounded on even as Caleb hustled out of the shop, wrestled with a rearing horse hitched to a swaying wagon. Packages and sacks tumbled out the back. A redheaded woman raced toward the struggling gal. That must be the twin sister, Rose. An older man hobbled across the street toward them while other people huddled on the sidewalks, watching but doing nothing.
Caleb saw it all in one glance as he jumped to Lilly's side and grabbed the harness, his hand right next to hers.
"Steady there," he ordered, his voice stern yet kindsomething animals understood.
Breathing raggedly, the horse allowed Caleb to pull his head down. Still holding tight to the animal, as was she, Caleb turned to the young woman. The name Lilly suited her. Blond hair, unblemished skin, blue eyes flashing like lightning.
She was understandably upset.
"What idiot set off firecrackers?" he demanded.
She snorted. "That Caldwell cowboy."
Ebner? His boss? Caleb glanced about but saw no sign of the Caldwell foreman. "Is anyone hurt?"
The redhead rushed to their side. "Lilly, are you okay?" She rubbed her hands over the young woman's arms. "I saw the whole thing." She jammed her fists to her hips. "I can't believe anyone would do such a stupid thing. Not even a Caldwell."
Caleb's neck tensed. He'd been working at the Caldwell ranch a couple of weeks now. Ebner was tough, allowing no slacking and objecting to Caleb keeping Teddy with him as he worked. Caleb had reminded Ebner several times it had been part of the agreement before Caleb had taken the job.
Mr. Caldwell was away on some errand, leaving Ebner in charge. The foreman ran the place with efficiency. Caleb had certainly seen no sign of such wanton disregard for the safety of man and beast.
"I'm fine," Lilly said. She sucked in air as if to calm her nerves and faced Caleb. "Thank you for your help. I saw you at the store, didn't I?"
"Yes, ma'am." He gave his name.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance." The smile she gave him could have changed rain to sunshine.
"Papa." Teddy's trembling voice made them all turn toward his son. Both ladies murmured, "Ah," as they saw Teddy.
Caleb understood how the boy would pull at one's heart. Big blue eyes, tousled hair that refused to be tamed, a look of innocence, though it was impossible there could be any innocence left after what the boy had been through. Teddy leaned on his crutches, his right leg not touching the floor.
"Son, I asked you to stay inside."
"I know, Papa. But what if something happened to you?"
Lilly's attention flickered between Caleb and Teddy. Rose's lingered on the boy.
"I don't intend for anything to happen to me."
Teddy nodded, his expression more worried than relieved.
"You stay there while I help these ladies collect their packages."
"That's my boy."
An older man approached them. "Are you girls okay?"
"We're fine, Pa," the pair chorused. So this was Mr. Bell. Caleb introduced himself. In turn, Mr. Bell introduced his daughters.
The horse had settled down. Caleb left Mr. Bell holding him and strode to the back of the wagon to gather up parcels and return them to the box.
Lilly scurried around to pick up things as well. "I hope nothing was damaged."
Teddy hobbled along the sidewalk to see better what Caleb was doing.
Lilly lifted a sack and paused to watch the boy. There was no mistaking the question in her eyes. She was wondering why the boy wasn't walking.
If only someone could provide that answer.
"Caleb." Ebner rode toward the wagon. "Leave them people to gather up their own stuff. You get our wagon on home now. Hear?"
Lilly glowered at Ebner as he rode away laughing. Then she turned toward Caleb. "You work for them?" She grabbed the package from his hands and shook it as if his mere touch had somehow soiled it.
"Yes, ma'am. 'Fraid I do." And if he wanted to keep his job, he needed to do as the boss said. "Glad no one was hurt."
She snorted. "I'm sure your boss won't agree."
If only he could explain. But what could he say? His job with the Caldwells was too important to risk losing over a few packages in the dirt. He needed the money to take Teddy to a new doctor down east. Perhaps this special doctor would be able to say why Teddy still wasn't using his leg though it had healed up. At least on the outside. The several doctors he'd already seen suggested there was nerve damage. Or something. They had all been vague and none had helped in any way.
"Goodbye." He included the sister and father in his nod and joined Teddy on the sidewalk. "Let's get going."
The walk toward the wagon couldn't be hurried even though Teddy had gotten good at walking with his crutches over the past few months. At the wagon, he scooped Teddy up and set him on the seat. "Now don't you be driving off without me."
Teddy laughed. "You know I can't drive a wagon." He leaned forward as if to take the reins. "Unless you let me."
Caleb climbed up and sat beside his son. "Seems to me it's about time you learned." He pulled the boy to his lap and let him hold the reins, his big hands firmly on Teddy's small ones.
Teddy turned his face up to Caleb and gave him a smile as wide as the sky.
Caleb's heart caught the smile and clung to it, determined not to let the past steal the joy of this precious moment or any others yet to come with his son.
If only he could go back and undo the past. But he couldn't. He couldn't bring back his wife, nor could he stop the thugs from breaking in and taking her life. He'd discovered them and shot them, but in the gunfight Teddy had been injured. Caleb's throat constricted with the same mire of emotions he'd experienced when he found his son, his leg bloody, his little face filled with terror.
Caleb swallowed hard and forced air into his lungs. He'd never know if he had been the one who fired the shot that hit Teddy. He lived for only one thingto see Teddy's fears end and the boy walk normally again.
If that required him to work for the Caldwells knowing Ebner could stoop to such dastardly deeds, well, that wasn't his concern now, was it?
As if suspecting Caleb might be having second thoughts, Ebner rode up beside him.
"You've got to understand something. The Caldwells don't get along with the Bells. We've been feuding ever since the Bells had the gall to file claim to a piece of land right plumb in the middle of Caldwell land. Seems some ignorant file clerk made a mistake. But will the Bells do the right thing and go farm somewhere else? Nope. They've got to keep on causing trouble. No one who works for the Caldwells can figure on being friends with the Bells. Understand?"
Caleb nodded. "Don't see I've got any cause to have truck with them."
"See that you don't." Ebner rode away, leaving Caleb to muse about his words.
"Papa, that man at the store, Mr. Frank, he said the Bells were nice people."
"Uh-huh. I expect they are." The way Rose and Mr. Bell had clustered around Lilly to make sure she wasn't hurt sure made him think so. It'd been a long time since he'd seen such care and devotion. Or rather since he'd experienced it. Amanda had been an efficient housekeeper and a good mother to Teddy, but she'd been distant and critical when it came to Caleb. He stilled his thoughts. One didn't speak evil of the dead even in his mind.
They rumbled down the road toward the Caldwell ranch, Teddy so focused on handling the horse that he never lifted his eyes from the animal.
Something in the bushes to the side of the road caught Caleb's attention. At first he thought someone had discarded a cow hide and wondered if there were rustlers about, but then he made out a nose and ears. A pup. Dead by the look of it.
He didn't want Teddy to notice, so he leaned over the boy. "Remember, you must always hold the reins as if something could startle your horse. Never get so relaxed he could get away from you."
Teddy pulled his hands from Caleb's and straightened, leaning hard into Caleb's shoulder as he turned to look to the side. "Papa, it's a dog."
"Don't you want to drive the wagon still?"
Teddy patted Caleb's shoulder. "He's hurt."
"Son, we have to get back." Please, Teddy. Let it go. You don't want to see any more suffering and death.
"Papa, he needs our help."
When Caleb continued onward, Teddy pounded his shoulder. "Papa, you can't leave him. You can't. He's hurt. You have to help. Stop. Please stop." Tears mingled with Teddy's demands.
Caleb pulled the wagon to a stop and held Teddy by the shoulders. " Son, he's dead and I don't want you to see it."
Teddy flung his father's hands off his shoulders. "You don't know that. What if he's only hurt?" He pursed his lips and gave Caleb a narrow-eyed look. "You ain't gonna just leave him there to die, are you?"
"He's already dead." How could such a small body hold so much stubbornness?
"Then we need to bury him."
Caleb would have protected his son from ever again seeing blood and death and burial, but the boy seemed to have other thoughts on the matter. "Very well." He jumped down, lifted Teddy to the ground, handed him his crutches and grabbed a shovel out of the wagon. He followed his son to the dog.
A pair of eyes opened and followed their approach.
"Papa, he's alive."
Caleb knelt by the dog. It had been slashed, and whimpered as if in pain. He saw it was a female. "Teddy, she's barely alive and she's hurting." He pushed to his feet. "I want you to come back to the wagon." He waited for the boy to obey, but Teddy only looked at him in puzzlement.
"Just do as I say." Caleb's feet felt heavy as rocks as he went back to the wagon and reached under the seat. He had to do what he had to do. It will be a kindness. The poor animal shouldn't be allowed to suffer.
Teddy hobbled after him, saw Caleb reach for the rifle and screamed. "No. You can't shoot my dog." He scrambled to the animal so fast Caleb held his breath for fear he'd fall and further injure himself.
"She's my dog." Teddy huddled forward. "Ain't nobody ever gonna hurt her."
"Son, she isn't going to live."
He tried every argument to convince Teddy of the futility of trying to save the dog, but his son would not relent. Though Caleb saw nothing ahead but sorrow and regret, he couldn't stay at the side of the road any longer. He wrapped the injured dog in a gunny sack and carried her gingerly to the wagon. "We'll take her home and stay with her so she doesn't die alone." He made the animal as comfortable as possible.
"I'll stay with her."
Knowing when to concede defeat, Caleb lifted Teddy in beside the dog and continued on his way. At the ranch he pulled up to the storage shed and unloaded the supplies. Thankfully Ebner wasn't around to demand he explain why it had taken so long to get back. It also saved Caleb from confronting the man about how he'd treated the Bells.
His task done, he carried the dog over to the covered wagon he shared with Teddy. He could have joined the others in the bunkhouse, but it wasn't the sort of atmosphere he wanted Teddy exposed to. It would soon get too cold to sleep in the wagonhe counted on having enough money to head east before then.
"You know what Mr. Frank said?" Teddy sat beside the dog, rubbing a spot behind the animal's ear.
"He said a lot of things." The man had seemed bent on informing Caleb about the "beautiful Bell girls." He'd overlooked one tiny detailthe Bells and the Caldwells didn't get along.
"He said that pretty lady you helped knew how to fix things."
"Things?" Was she a blacksmith? He couldn't imagine it, but he'd encountered stranger things in the West.
"Hurt things." Teddy must have thought he needed to explain her abilities more. "Mr. Frank said she helps people, too, and all kinds of animals."
Caleb smiled at his son's enthusiasm. "Hurt people, too, huh?" He wondered if she could help him. He silently laughed in derision. It was those around him who would need her help. People who got close to him tended to get hurt.
"But especially hurt dogs." Teddy gave Caleb a wide-eyed, pleading look that brought a smile to Caleb's lips. How long had it been since Teddy had cared enough about something to use that special look of his?
"What are you saying, son?" As if he didn't know. But he dared not give the boy any encouragement. The dog looked beyond saving.
"We could ask her to help my dog."
"It might not do any good." But what harm would it do? Perhaps Lilly could help. Perhaps Caleb could protect his son from more pain.
"Couldn't we try, please?"
Lilly put the last of the packages into the wagon and then stared after Caleb and his son. Poor little fellow was limited by having to use crutches. Had he broken his leg? Perhaps he had a severe cut. She hoped, whatever the cause, the injury was temporary. God, please help the little fellow get better.
Caleb was so tender with the lad. He had lifted him to the wagon seat and laughed at him, and then had taken him on his lap as they drove away, little Teddy almost bursting with pride as he gripped the reins.
There was a time she'd hoped she'd have a little boy or girl of her own. But thanks to one Karl Mueller, she'd given up such dreams.
Tightness weaved around her spine. How could she have let herself care so deeply? And in hindsight, so foolishly? She could put it down to age. She had been a mere sixteen years old when she'd been thrilled and somewhat surprised at the attention he'd paid her. After all, he had been handsome and so grown-up at eighteen. So attentive. He'd made her feel important when he tipped his head to listen to her talk. She'd told him her dreams and her fears. He'd assured her he understood. They'd agreed that when Lilly turned eighteen they would marry. And she'd trusted him. Sometimes she wondered if Karl really believed the things he'd promised, or if they'd fallen off his tongue simply because he thought they would please her. One thing Karl liked was to know people were happy with him.