Willamina Starling smiled at Dr Caleb Campbell, but the thin, bald man seemed incapable of returning it. His entire appearance suggested a living skeleton, and with every bit of the expected mirth. And this hardly took her by surprise. She’d already begun hearing the expression about laughing all the way to the bank, and she knew it didn’t apply to many of the good people of Pueblo, Colorado.
She took his deposit, counted it out, and prepared the receipt. His greying eyes locked on her hands as she finished the transaction and handed him a freshly dipped pen to sign his name.
“You’re looking well, Willamina,” he finally said, a rare burst of informality. The town’s only doctor, he was not widely known for his bedside manner.
But Billie felt well enough, in the full strength of her twenty years on God’s Earth. Her day dress had a high, V-shaped neckline and very tight sleeves, constricting her movement but giving her a fashionable and respectful appearance.
“After all these years, Dr Campbell, won’t you just call me Billie?”
His lips remained a straight slant across his white, angular face. “No.”
Billie couldn’t ignore her father’s eyes surveying her from across the floor of the First National Bank of Pueblo. And once again, Billie was far from taken by surprise. He’d been overseeing her every move for each minute of her eighteen years, and twice a minute for the previous seven.
Since all that business with Ross, Billie had to remind herself. Since Daddy kicked him out of the house.
Billie suddenly had two specters to ignore; one years in the past, one just a few yards away and looming large in her present and future.
The doctor looked his receipt over, nodded, and allowed that to be the extent of his exit’s courtesy. Billie had long become used to such treatment. As a woman, even as a professional woman working in the town’s only bank, and a successful bank at that, she earned little respect, only as much as her petticoats would allow.
Even being the only daughter of the bank’s president earned her little in the way of respect, though it did afford her some courtesy. She knew the rest came from her pretty face and blonde hair; blue eyes shaped like a cat’s, and a body in the full bloom of young womanhood.
But Billie longed for more, to be taken seriously as a person, to be treated as something of an equal; no matter how fashionable or unfashionable the idea may have seemed to those around her, depending on the year and the current events. Those things held no sway with Billie. For her there was truth or untruth, fairness or partiality, right or wrong. It was a stubbornness she knew she’d inherited from her father, and it wasn’t a trait which had served him or their family well, not at all. In fact, it had been that implacability which had caused Ross to be exiled, cast out of his family, his community, his sister’s life.
Will it serve me any less tragically, Billie had to wonder, will it be my own undoing as well?
Doctor Ross’s grave appearance was replaced by the fat, cheerful face of Father Arnell Abernathy, almost the doctor’s complete physical and spiritual opposite, an irony not lost on Billie and only made clearer with the contrast of one against the other. Even their clothes were starkly different; the doctor wearing a fresh white coat, the friendly father clad entirely in black.
“There’s my favorite congregant,” he said, tucking his head back, fatty double-chin rolling forward.
“Father Abernathy,” Billie said. “Plenty of donations to deposit today?”
“The Lord’s bounty never fails to amaze.”
“Well, His ways are said to be a mystery.” They chuckled, and Billie went quickly to work, counting out the bills and coins, figures fitting neatly into two perfect columns. A second round of addition resulted in the same sum, to the cent. A third confirmed it.
“The sharpest mind in Pueblo,” Father Abernathy said, “and the most thorough.”
“Never a penny short of certainty, Father, just as my father.” Billie didn’t need to glance across the bank to see that her father was watching her, as always.
Father Abernathy shook his head. “What skill! My head for numbers is, well, it’s no head at all!”
“You have an ear for the word of the Lord, Father. How can an ease with some coins compare to that? You remember how Jesus treated the moneychangers in the temple.”
“And He declared to them, ‘It is written: My house will be called a house of prayer. But you are making it a den of robbers.’” Father Abernathy said.
Billie let a mischievous little half-smile curl into the corner of her cheek. “The blind and the lame came to Him at the temple,” Billie recited, perfectly rendering Matthew 21:14, “and He healed them. But the chief priests and scribes were indignant when they saw the wonders He did and the children shouting in the temple courts, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’”
Father Abernathy smiled and nodded, impressed. “Perhaps you’ve missed your true calling.”
Billie’s smile melted away. “Perhaps,” was all she could say, not needing to say any more.
Clearing his throat of Lord knows what, the friendly priest asked, “Have you given any further thought to … to what we discussed?”
After a quick glance at her father, Billie said, “I can hardly think of anything else, Father. It’s my life’s dream, you know that. But … I just can’t, my father …”
“Is it so important to him that you follow in his footsteps?” He looked around the bank, wood panelling and iron bars establishing the decor. “Especially here?” This attracted Billie’s attention and just a bit of her ire, though there was no need to redress the friendly priest. She tilted her head slightly to one side, a wordless cue for him to explain. “I mean, the schoolhouse is where you’d prefer to be, after all.”
“Not that a bank is the necessary domain of a man, and a schoolhouse the principle purview of the woman?”
The priest stammered, jowls wobbling on his round, pale face. “No, of course not. You know me, Willamina; I know you’re as capable as any man, to do almost anything a man can do.”
Billie smiled. “And I almost agree.”
Father Abernathy turned, and noting the elder Starling’s attention fixed on them, gave him a little smile in concert with a friendly nod before turning back to Billie. “Perhaps I should speak with him?”
“No, Father,” Billie was quick to say, “that would only … no, I … I can handle it, Father, and I will … in my own way, and in my own time.”
The rotund cleric gave it some thought, nodding and sighing, fish fresh on his breath. “If you change your mind, feel free to let me know. Our Mrs McGinnis isn’t faring well, I’m afraid.”
“No?” Billie glanced around, dipping her head just a bit and leaning forward as her voice dipped as well. “Is that the kind of thing you should be talking about in public?”
“Only to you,” Father Abernathy said, matching her change of tone with his own. “Because it may help you make your choice. The children of Pueblo need a schoolteacher.”
“I know, Father, I know …” Billie glanced at her father, in a rare moment of distraction by his actual duties. “I’ll talk to him, but … but I know God will look after Nancy until whatever changes He deems are ready to come to pass.”
Father Abernathy smiled, blinking slowly as his glistening eyes looked her over. “How many callings can one young woman miss?”
Billie didn’t want to say anything, but in the hollow chambers of her heart, she already knew the answer.
All of them.
The mutton stew was hot, the gravy thick, rich, and salty, slices of carrots still firm and orange, russet potatoes and pearl onions white, round and succulent with the tender, peppery meat.
The cold, crisp garden salad was the perfect accent, warm bread fresh from the oven tasting of the hickory chips and fire-scorched brick. The lemonade was brisk and tasty, just a hint of bitter tang before washing smooth down Billie’s throat.
The Starling family ate in silence, as usual, only the muted sounds of chewing, swallowing, silver utensils clanging against fine china dishes.
William Starling sat at the head of the table, befitting his place as the patriarch of the household. He’d taken off his waistcoat, vest and suspenders still strapped over his long sleeve white cotton dress shirt. Billie’s mother Rosalind wore the same plain grey dress, no ribbons or trusses, designed for comfort and mobility, lest it restrict her performance of her wifely chores.
The dining room was cast in a sombre loom, shadowy and dark, oil lamps providing flickering lights from behind glass bulbs.
Billie spent most of the meal trying to gauge her father’s readiness to address the subject, but she couldn’t spot any trace of vulnerability, no opportunity to give him another chance to countermand his previous decision, hoping his patience wouldn’t be overtaxed in the effort.
But Billie’s attention was drawn to her mother, ageing beyond her forty-five years. Rosalind Starling kept her head down and her eyes on her plate, dutiful and silent at every turn. She’d been that way for so long; Billie had to search her imagination to find images of the bright smile, the glowing eyes of a woman who looked at her children, her family, and her world with complete and humble satisfaction.
It seemed to be a lifetime ago, but Billie knew the years counted only seven. Seven years isn’t so long a time, Billie wanted to tell her mother, as she often reminded herself, long though it may seem.
He could still be alive, Billie reminded herself as she wished to urge her mother, barred from doing so by her father’s lifelong edict, never to be rescinded. Ross could still be out there; he almost certainly is! One day I’ll find him, Mother, one day I’ll bring him back and clear his name, and our family will be whole again.
One day, Mother. One day …
William Starling looked at Billie from his seat at the head of the table, chewing slowly and swallowing hard. He finally spoke. “I noticed Father Abernathy lingering at your teller window, Willamina.” A tense little silence passed before he asked, “What was the reason for it?”
Billie’s stomach was already turning with nerves, fear for the snapping temper under his rigid surface. Billie tried to shrug it off with a casual smile. “You know the father, how chatty he can be.”
“And you know how I disfavour that practice. It’s a bank and trust, a place of serious business; it’s no place for idle chatter! Other customers wait in line for prompt service, not to watch you visit with the local cleric like some gossiping old woman.”
Rosalind watched, eyes shifting from her husband to her daughter, impotent to raise her own voice to sway matters one way or the other.
“I didn’t want to be rude to him, Father. He is our priest, after all. But even if he were Abner Avits, the town drunk—”
William snapped, “Language!”
Sudden silence swept over the dinner table before Billie resumed, in a quieter voice, “He would still deserve to be treated with respect in our bank, wouldn’t you say?”
William’s eyes were cold grey, fixed on Billie, his lips a joyless flat slat across his face.
Billie returned to her meal, her mother glancing at her in the corner of her eye, silently pleading with her to let the matter rest. But Billie knew she had a chance and wasn’t likely to get another. And for the fat father to have raised the issue meant time was of the essence.
Perhaps this is God’s will, Billie reasoned, perhaps it is for me to hear the call, to rise to the occasion and claim what’s mine. If I fail or if I shirk or cower, what right do I have to complain of not being happy or fulfilled? If I don’t stand up and claim my rights, what rights will I have, and what rights would I deserve?
“Though the father did raise an interesting point,” Billie added, knowing at once that it was too late to back away or back down. She took a sip of lemonade to refresh herself, but it wouldn’t be enough. “About Mrs McGinnis, at the schoolhouse—”
William dropped his hands to the table, utensils clacking loudly against the china. “Again?”
“I only mention it because he mentioned it to me. I think her health may finally be failing.”
William shook his head and returned to his salad. “Our esteemed Dr Campbell must be beside himself to be run out of business by none other than our local preacher!”
“It isn’t that,” Billie said. “Of course Dr Campbell can’t speak of his patients, but Mrs McGinnis herself spoke of suffering those headaches, and of the doctor’s frightful prognosis.”
“Brain tumor,” Rosalind said in a quiet mutter, head shaking as she slowly raised a spoonful of gravy to her lips. “Terrible.”
“I’ve heard the fruits of such jabber,” William said. “And I trust Dr Campbell and Father Abernathy both to serve the community as they are trained … and not as the other is trained!”
“But it is Father Abernathy’s job to make sure the children are looked after, educated …”
William asked his daughter, “How can you be so selfish?”
“Selfish?” But Billie knew what he meant, what he was referring to.
William shook his head. “Whilst your childish fantasies to be a schoolteacher come so tantalizingly close to life, doesn’t it occur to you that our poor Mrs McGinnis needs to keep teaching, that she chooses to in order to give her life purpose, perhaps to prolong it?”
Billie’s blood ran cold with guilt in a way that only her father could inspire. And he seemed able to do it at the drop of a hat.
“I … I imagine Father Abernathy has taken that into account. I’m sure he didn’t intend to hurt Mrs McGinnis at all, but … to prepare for what may become inevitable.”
William scooped up a forkful of meat, potatoes, and carrot. “Aren’t there other women who would be more than up to the job?” A long, guilty silence passed, Billie looking down at her plate. In an impatient bark, her father demanded, “Well?”
“Because he knows I want to do it,” Billie said, “and because he knows I’d be good at it.”
“You’ve got a God-given gift with numbers, Willamina! To work anywhere other than a bank is a waste of that gift!” He shook his round head. “I can’t even understand why you would want to work with a bunch of snot-nosed kids to begin with, and that’s as compared to, say, digging a ditch or laying track for the railroad! But compare it to a bank, where the best people in town come and go, people you should travel amongst if you wish to elevate your station!”
Rosalind said, very softly, “And perhaps marry?”
“Marry,” William repeated bitterly, “children, schoolhouses. Take my advice, Willamina, forget all that. You’ll only be setting yourself up for betrayal.”
Billie knew what he meant, she knew the betrayals her father was talking about, for there were now two: Ross’ betrayal of her father and the whole family name, the bank, all of Pueblo, and there was Billie’s own betrayal, suggested by a dinner conversation, a move that she knew would drive a wedge between them as it had between her father and brother. And while Billie was almost willing to accept that rather than spend the rest of her life in miserable servitude, two things stayed her hand: The idea of breaking her father’s heart with yet a second dagger in the heart, this time from the second of his only two children, and the notion of breaking her mother’s heart to lose yet another child. Billie knew her poor mother wouldn’t survive it, nor would she want to, and that was a condition Billie could not be the author of, no matter how much pain it brought to her own heart, her own soul, her own life. She owed her life to her mother, and it was a debt Billie wasn’t about to turn her back on.
For as long as she could help it.
The First National Bank of Pueblo was doing a brisk business, miners, shopkeepers and people of all sorts making deposits, withdrawals, one or two waiting in line to see William Starling himself for a bank loan. Land needed buying, houses needed building, businesses needed founding. Pueblo was growing along with the rest of the country, by leaps and bounds.
The terrible bloodletting of the so-called war between the states just ten years before had left some people in doubt whether the nation would ever recover. William had often repeated the late, lamented President Lincoln’s already famous line: A house divided against itself cannot stand. Billie knew what he was referring to, the wedge that was plunged right between the Starling household, a family which only remained intact due to his iron will and unshakable faith.
But Billie knew even her father’s steady command couldn’t forestall the inevitable. His unyielding anger and resentment towards his son and her brother, Ross, had long festered to seething hatred. That hatred was either going to kill him, their beloved matriarch Rosalind, or Billie herself. Something, as some people were starting to say, would have to give.
“Howdy, Miss Starling.”
Billie saw Horace Hobbs, big, broad, and filthy from his gold mines. He dropped two little cotton sacks on the counter. “Six ounces, Miss McAllister, straight from the creek.”
“Very impressive,” Billie said. “You and your father must be wearing those trays down to the nub!”
He chuckled. “Not to mention the picks and shovels. But one day we’ll hit that vein, and then we’ll have some real money, be able to buy up all of Pueblo if we’ve a mind to.”
Billie smiled, Horace turning to scope out William Starling across the bank. “Maybe then your pa’d let me court you good ’n proper.”
Billie smiled as she weighed out the gold on a scale behind the teller window bars. “Horace, you know how things are. My father …”
“He’s very strict, I know. But once I’s man of real means, he’ll have to take me serious.”
“We’ll see,” Billie said, filling out a receipt for the deposit. “But in the meantime, I know there are lots of girls in town whose fathers are a bit more … lenient.”
“That’s as may be, Miss Starling, but … there ain’t any as pretty an’ smart as you.”
“Of course there are, Horace. Now you get out there and don’t be bashful. Women love confidence.”
“I guarantee it.”
Horace smiled and puffed out his chest. “I’ll keep that in mind, Miss Starling, yes I surely will.” He took his receipt, checked it, tipped his hat, and strode out of the bank.
She watched the young man leave the bank. He hadn’t been the first person to express an interest in her, especially since she started working at the bank three years before. But she hadn’t been lying to Horace; her father kept a watchful eye on her just about every minute of the day. As he rode her into town for work in the morning by carriage and then out again afterward, Billie was practically never alone on the streets of Pueblo, never available for any young man to introduce himself. And that seemed to be just the way William Starling wanted it, something every young man in town knew more than well.
The end of the hour slowly approached, customers coming and going without notice of anything unsettling or unusual.
“Hands up, everybody, way up high!” Billie’s attention was snapped towards the man standing in the centre of the bank, a red bandana tied over his face, a revolving pistol in each hand. Another man held a rifle up to his own disguised face, turning that lethal weapon on one patron then another, on her father and then on her. The sense of oppression was immediate and irresistible, a hushed quiet falling over the bank and everybody in it.
Billie raised her hands, hovering near her shoulders, the patrons doing the same, some seeming to reach all the way to the walnut beams running under the pine ceiling.
A third man carried a wool sack in one hand, a revolver in the other, as he went from one patron to another. “Fill it,” he shouted from behind his bandana, a worn derby over his head, “ever’thing you got!” One person, Lawrence the cobbler, hesitated, nervous, his lips quivering. The bandit hollered, “Do it now!”
William and Billie shared a glance from across the bank, but his attention was quickly drawn to the bandits. Billie knew her own presence there during a robbery wasn’t the only distraction on her father’s mind. Billie knew he was reliving the robbery of seven years before. She knew he was seeing not only the men who were then robbing the bank, but the men who had conspired with his own son, that hated Starling among them. Billie knew her father relived that terrible moment every day of his life since it happened and would likely do so every moment more until his death, which seemed suddenly and frightfully near.
“Let’s go,” the bandit who seemed to be in charge shouted as a fourth man crossed the bank to the teller window and then around the side, revolver pointed at Billie as he stomped up to the cash drawer. He pulled it open and grabbed the bills, fistfuls of currency jammed into a leather saddlebag. He pulled the drawer all the way out and shook it for a false bottom, then tossed the drawer away and pulled out the other drawers. He rifled through blank forms, bottles of ink.
But his attention was soon distracted by Billie’s female form, standing only a few inches from him. He looked her over, her tight jacket and billowing skirts only accentuating her curves, synching her waist, meant to be professional and attractive, but not to him.
“Hey,” the bandit in the centre of the bank hollered, “get on with it!”
The bandit behind the teller window passed that ire along to Billie. “Where’s the rest?”
“That’s just for this morning,” Billie said, “the rest is … in the safe.”
In the corner of her eye, William was shaking his head as if once again betrayed by his own.
The bandit raised his revolving pistol to her face. “Open it!”
Billie nodded and crossed to the safe, the bandit behind her. Billie reached down to start turning the combination lock to open the safe. Her father looked in pitiable disappointment, but Billie knew there was little she could do. Her palms were sweating even as her mouth went dry, the metal wheel gliding clockwise and then counter, clicking as she went from one number to the rest. She grabbed the lever and pulled hard to the right, expecting it to open with a loud clack.
But the lever didn’t budge, a cold stone sinking in Billie’s gut.
Billie quickly spun the wheel to clear the gears and tried again, turning the wheels a bit more carefully but even more quickly than before.
Once again, the lever wouldn’t budge.
The bandit stuck the revolver into the back of her neck. “Stop playing games, girlie!”
“I’m not,” Billie snapped back, “I’m nervous!”
“I’ll open it,” William said from across the bank. But one of the bandits, who happened to be standing nearby, raised his rifle and cracked the end of the butt into the back of William’s head. He winced and snapped forward with a grunt.
The bandit in the centre of the bank shouted, “What in hell’s the matter with you, boy?”
“I don’t like his kind!”
“He could’a opened the safe, you ijit!”
“I got it,” Billie barked out, forgetting herself.
The bandit pushed the revolver even deeper into the back of her neck. “Shut yer trap, you mouthy little snit!” He looked her over and chuckled behind his bandana. “Maybe we’ll need to take a hostage, huh?” He turned and called to his cohort in the centre of the bank. “Whaddaya say, can we keep her?”
“Just get that safe open,” the leader said, “then we’ll talk about the girl.”
“Drop your weapons and come out with your hands up!” The bandits all turned towards the bank’s main entrance, where Sheriff Lester McAllister stood, both his guns already drawn. His barrel chest was thrust forward, broad shoulders supporting his beefy arms.
The violence broke out fast. Billie’s attention instantly possessed by the struggle she found herself in with the bandit standing behind her. He tried to grab her and pull her close to use as a human shield, but Billie was quick to lock her fists around the man’s wrist, gun locked in their mutual grip.
He was strong and angry, but he clearly had underestimated Billie, who wasn’t about to let go and cower, to be used against her father, the sheriff, against herself. So the gun seemed to hover between them as the bandit tried to turn it on Billie and she tried to prevent that very move.
The gunshots filled the bank, people screaming around her. But Billie knew it wasn’t the gun in front of her, that she wasn’t shot. But that meant somebody else almost certainly was.
Bam! Bam, bam, bam!
But the bandit was right in front of Billie, obscuring her view of the rest of the bank outside the teller window. And that Colt revolver, which came nearer and nearer to her head told Billie she’d probably die without knowing who, if anybody, had survived her.
Some movement outside a nearby window managed to distract Billie’s focus. Deputy Nick Mathers was fast approaching from across the street. The bandit glanced over too, following Billie’s line of sight. Billie noted his sudden and fleeting vulnerability and took full advantage.
She threw her knee hard into the bandit’s crotch. He bent forward with a pain-filled groan, and Billie grabbed the revolver and yanked it from his stunned grip. She found herself holding the gun, pointed right at the bandit as he drew a hunting knife and lunged at her.
Billie’s instincts acted without her, a deep-rooted need to survive, the God-given gift of self-preservation.
Billie’s shot blasted out before the bandit’s blade could reach her. He snapped back and collapsed back where he should have stayed. Billie’s heart was pounding, her skin clammy, and her heart aching to see the death she’d had to create in place of her own.
But there was no time to think about it. Putting the bandit on the floor gave Billie a clear view of what was happening between her father, the sheriff, and the other bandits.
The customs were ducking into corners, under desks, and at the foot of the teller window, as far back as they could recoil, no true shelter available. The sheriff was already on the ground as well, Deputy Mathers in the doorway, his own revolvers drawn and firing.
Billie ducked down again, bullets flying overhead, wood chips jumping out of the wounded wooden walls and support beams.
Bam, bam bam bam!
The revolver shook in Billie’s grip, an unfamiliar weight, an uneasy burden. She’d grown up to despise violence and hoped to live her entire life with a minimum of the horrible stuff. The previous ten minutes had provided more than her fill.
But the sudden burst of gunfire ended as quickly as it had begun. Billie remained crouched down behind the teller window, the dead bandit slumped only a few feet away, back against the wall.
Billie knew just how he might have felt, if he could still feel anything at all. Then again, she had to admit, he knows something now that I’m probably about to find out.
What’s next? Billie had to wonder, do I poke my head up and have it shot right off my shoulders?
Her father called out, “Are you all right back there, Willamina?”
Billie tried to call out, her mouth so dry she could hardly fashion a sound. She swallowed hard. “Fine, Daddy. You? Are you okay?”
“Fine. You can come on out now, Willamina.”
Billie pushed herself up to a standing position, eyes quick to take in the damage, the bodies, gun smoke still thick in the air, collecting in the back of her throat in an acrid powder burning her nostrils.
Deputy Nick Mathers knelt, blood seeping into his shirt through a hole in his shoulder, but it didn’t compare to that of his fallen hero, Sheriff Lester McAllister, face-up on the bank floor, head gently turning, a low groan leaking out of his mouth.
But the sheriff hadn’t been stricken in vain – the bodies of all four bandits clumped in various corners and areas of the bank. The customers’ shocked silence slowly gave way to worried speculation and sad realisation.
William looked around the bank, his eyes finding Billie’s on the other side of the teller window. She ran around the side door from the teller window to the bullpen and then over one of the bandits’ bodies to her father. He accepted her with warm and loving arms, pulling her tighter than he had in years.
Billie could feel the desperate gratitude, the certainty he’d had that he’d lose his only other child, the only light in the increasingly dark shadow of his life.
And though both had survived the terrible attack, there was no ignoring the spectre of death all around them. Four bandits lay dead, one by Billie’s own unwilling hand. Both of Pueblo’s lawmen injured, one gravely, perhaps mortally. They may have survived, but Billie was plagued with a certainty that things were going to get worse and fast. Their survival wasn’t guaranteed, and as a chill ran up Billie’s spine, she had the grave notion that it wasn’t even very likely.
Jack McAllister’s gloved hands were slippery, reaching deeper into unseen territory. In front of him, Marigold crouched, the cow’s hips nearing the point of breakage. She cried out in a long, anguished moan, the sound of her pain ringing over the ranch.
“Take it easy, Marigold,” Jack said, voice tight behind clenched teeth, “just a little while longer.”
Sweat poured down Jack’s face, but it wasn’t from the midday sun, mild in that early spring. His left arm slid deeper into Marigold, her calf’s legs tied around its umbilical cord. Both creatures struggled at Jack’s touch, the power of their combined frustrated strength racing up Jack’s arm and curling in the bottom of his stomach.
Jack pulled his hand out, Marigold trying to stagger away from Jack’s painful intrusion, but Mose held her tight by the harness. Glare from the sun bounced off Mose’s high, sweating forehead, exerting all the strength necessary to hold the fifteen-hundred-pound cow steady. He’d been years at the ranch and never once let the McAllisters down.
“Calf’s all caught up in the umbilical cord,” Jack said, wiping his brow.
“Both will die, Mr Jack.” Mose had been born with a deficiency of the brain and of uncertain heritage, but neither his heart nor the soul were lacking.
Jack shook his head. “No, Mose, neither one are going to die.” Jack pulled out a skinning blade, long and thin and ever-ready on his belt.
“Mister Jack, no!”
“Take it easy, Mose. And hold her steady … really steady.”
Moses nodded, clutching Marigold’s harness with even greater exertion. Jack turned the knife so that the handle was in his palm, but the blade was pressed against the inside of his forearm, blade dangerously close to his own arteries. He pulled his shirt over the blade and slid his gloved hand back into Marigold from behind, the skinning knife sheathed by Jack’s sleeve as he slid his arm up and in.
Jack pushed up the now-familiar canal, the blade snug against his own arm. Marigold flinched and cried out again, shaking her big, heavy head and clopping her hooves into the hay-covered ground.
Jack could picture the calf’s hind legs as his hand pushed past them; that life-giving but lethal tube stretching tighter as the little creature struggled against a death that would come before life itself could actually begin.
Jack pushed his hand up a bit further, then tried to pull his hand back, drawing the blade away from his arm, extended and ready to do its job. But with the twitching of the unborn calf and its harried mother, the knife was jostled in Jack’s hand, nearly slipping out of his slick, gloved fingers.
“Hold her steady, Mose!”
Mose pulled a bit, and Marigold resisted even more, the motion in the womb more dangerous, the deadly blade nearly glancing the calf’s leg. One wrong cut, and nerves could be severed, the calf rendered lame.
“I try, Mr Jack!”
“Try harder, Mose!”
“I try harder, Mr Jack!”
Jack dug around a bit more until he felt the pressure of the tube against the knife blade. He secured his grip on the handle and drew the knife back and forth, pushing the blade against the tube. The cow kept moaning and stomping, the calf flinching and slick against Jack’s hand.
“C’mon, Marigold, c’mon … just a bit more …”
Jack pressed just a bit harder, and the tube finally snapped. The calf seemed to sense the change in pressure around its legs, and the unborn creature began kicking, instinctively desperate.
Jack pressed the knife back against the inside of his arm. This was one of the most crucial steps. Jack had to get that knife out of Marigold without stabbing into her or cutting her open, which would send the animal into panic and yet cause the loss of mother and calf alike.
“Hold her, Mose!”
“Yes, Mr Jack, I hold, I hold!”
Jack pressed the knife tighter, the cold pain of a cut shooting through his skin. But there was no time to worry about himself. He pushed his arm back and out and managed to pull the long, slender skinning knife out of the cow’s birth canal. A fresh, long cut ran along Jack’s inner arm, but he hadn’t struck a vein. So he sheathed the blade to his belt and reached back in.
Jack’s fingers found the calf’s hind legs, pinning its rear ankles together in his fist and pulling hard.
The calf slid out of her mother in one tremendous, surprising delivery. Fluids and other debris came out with the calf, which was quick to look up from the ground, its mother turning to see the results of her protracted labour.
A flush of hot gratitude poured through Jack’s body as he scuttled back a foot or two to give the calf some room to breathe. Jack sat there as mother and calf met for the first time. Marigold nuzzled her calf, licking her clean and nudging the calf to its hooves. The calf, a male, struggled to find its footing, little legs quivering to support its weight.
The calf shook off the slick film of his mother’s birth fluids and took his first shaky few steps. Mose let go of the harness and stepped back, no reason to hold Marigold back any longer. She was content to stand with her newborn, shaking her head in relief, tossing out a grateful huff.
Mose reached out his hand, and Jack took it, one helping the other to his feet. They both looked at the little calf, showing no signs of the trauma which almost took its life. Jack couldn’t help the little chuckle that started to wriggle out of his throat. Mose looked down at the little creature, huge eyes and spindly legs. He chuckled a little too, and the two of them inspired the other to a full-throated laughter. It didn’t last long, but it sure felt good.
Jack said, “What shall we name him?”
“He is your calf, Mr Jack.”
Jack scratched his chin and gave it some thought. Moments like these were among his favourites, proof that he’d chosen the right path in life. On the ranch, life was simple, honest, pure.
But no inspiration struck, no perfect name writing itself across Jack’s imagination. “We’ll give it some thought,” Jack said. Mose nodded before something else grabbed his attention. Jack turned, following Mose’s line of sight to see a familiar person riding a horse up to the ranch house.
Jack and Mose stepped away from Marigold and her new calf towards the man, who spotted them and trotted over to meet them halfway.
“Saddle up my horse, Mose.” Without looking back, Jack stepped towards the house and their familiar visitor.
“George Niles,” Jack said as the man’s horse clopped up to him, “this is a pleasant surprise.”
“I’m afraid not, Jack,” George said from the saddle of his paint, eyeglasses barely holding onto his bony nose, long hair tangled. “There’s trouble in town.”
“My father,” Jack said, hairs on the backs of his arms already standing on end.
“I’m afraid so,” George said. “Bank robbery.”
But Mose was already running back to the stable to retrieve Jack’s stallion. “How bad, George?”
“I … I can’t say. I haven’t seen him. But the doc’s been with him since it happened. Nobody knows for sure, but … you best come into town with me.”
He needn’t have said so. Moses rode up on Ghost, Jack’s grey speckled stallion. He jumped off the horse and handed Jack the reins. Jack jumped up and slipped his other foot into the stirrup on the other side of the horse. With a hard kick to the animal’s flanks, Jack shook the reins, and Ghost took him jumping into a quick and wordless gallop, George riding fast on his heels.
Jack rode Ghost hard and fast, leading George across the rolling foothills towards the Rocky Mountains and Pueblo, just before them. Cold wind cut through Jack’s shirt, but fear and worry curled hot in his gut.
Pop, Jack thought as they rode on, damn it, Dad, you had to know this was going to happen. Nobody’s skill is great enough to outgun destiny, nobody’s luck holds out forever.
Live by the sword …
The giant goldenrods and woods rose and chokecherries blurred past in Jack’s periphery, his focus set on his destination. The greater distractions were the past, the fights, the stress, and unspoken worry that crept around every corner of their lives.
I told you this would happen, Pop. And I know somebody had to do the job, but did it have to be you? Hadn’t you given enough to your country? You could have stayed back at the ranch and worked it full-time, you and me, father and son like we always dreamed about.
The ranch, Jack couldn’t help thinking. There’s life back at the ranch, that’s where family happens, where joy happens. And in the quiet of the buffer zone between the ranch and the town proper, Jack couldn’t ignore the transition of one world into the next, a place of nature and truth, hard work and fair pay.
The buildings of Pueblo rose up in the distance ahead of him, many more than the last time Jack had made the trip, which he did at an absolute minimum. The town spread out at the sides and even the buildings were getting bigger and taller, one seeming to be three stories tall.
The city, Jack silently said, bitterness in his inner voice. Pueblo: Bankers and salesmen, politicians who can only bottom feed in the shallows. Lawyers and morticians, rogues and rascals, gamblers and women of repute to ill to consider.
If any town ever needed a lawman with character like my father’s, Jack had to admit to himself.
They rode in fast, the crowded streets threatening to slow Jack’s progress or stop it all together. Jack hadn’t been prepared for so many carriages and carts in the wide streets, elevated wooden sidewalks packed with pedestrians pushing up and down the thoroughfare on each side.
Men stood on the corners, holding up newspapers for sale, shouting out the headlines; others called out the pleasures of the theatres, gaming halls, and restaurants, seemingly in impossible abundance.
Jack remembered where Dr Campbell’s place was, and Jack left George to see to the horses while he ran into the two-storey building, living quarters on the second floor.
Doctor Campbell turned to greet him. He’d been waiting, already out of his bloodstained white jacket. “Mister McAllister, I’m glad you’re here.”
But Jack looked past the bony doctor to the nearby bed, where his father lay on his back, shirtless, white bandages stretched across his chest and belly. “I’ve done all I can. It’s best that he not speak …”
A modest red blot dominated the centre of the bandage.
Jack fell to his father’s bedside, taking his hand and holding tight. “Pop …” Lester smiled at his son, calm in his bloodless face. Jack looked his father’s body over, the former giant already reduced, horizontal then, and it seemed likely forevermore.
Lester coughed, blood spurting out of his mouth. “You’re here to say I told you so?”
“No, Pop, no. You have to relax, Pop, take the time to get better.”
Lester shook his head. “No, Jack, no more time for that. No more … no more time …”
“Pop, you’ve got to conserve your strength.”
“You have to do it for me, Jack! You … only you …” Jack wanted to object, to present any one of the many objections he’d raised countless times through his teens and early twenties. Jack wasn’t going to be his father’s deputy, then any more than at any other time.
“Pop, I’m not qualified, I never was.”
“You are, my son, you always were.”
“I … I’m not that good a shot, Pop.”
The red patch grew larger, black at the centre, blood seeping in an irregular diameter. “You can train, Jack. It …” Lester winced with pain, coughing up more blood before leaning back. “It takes more than a steady hand – it takes a strong heart, a keen eye, a … a good man.”
“Pueblo needs you now, Jack …”
“I do a lot for Pueblo by raising our sheep, dealing with the Southern Cheyenne.”
Lester shook his head, his trembling hands grasping Jack’s with increasing urgency. “You’ve waited long enough, Jack; you can’t wait any longer …”
“What about Nick, Pop? He’s a good deputy, he should be the sheriff.”
“They got Nick too, Son. He … he’s a good man, but he’s hurt, needs help.”
“Then I’d be his deputy.”
Lester pulled Jack closer, pulling himself up from the bed at the same time. His eyes locked on Jack’s. “He hasn’t got what it takes, Jack!”
“Take it easy, Pop!” The white bandage was almost entirely red, the black patch in the centre growing.
“Just until he’s ready,” Lester said, his voice cracking, “just until he … he ….” Lester flinched, eyes clamping shut, fingers digging into Jack’s shirt, pulling with the pain of some internal contraction, his poor father’s soul twisted inside that tortured carcass.
The doctor rushed up and pushed Jack out of the way. Jack stood helpless, the doctor’s back obstructing his view. Lester gurgled and coughed, whining and wheezing under the doctor’s studious attention.
“What,” Jack barked out, “what is it, Doctor?” But the doctor just held his hand out, fresh blood on his fingers as he waved Jack out of the room. “Doc?”
“Just get out,” was the doctor’s only answer. Jack’s hot nausea turned to cold bile as he turned to step out of the doc’s place and onto the street, closing the door behind him.
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In 1875, Willamina Billie Starling lives a stifling life following her father’s orders without raising any objections. Beyond that, a sobering past surrounding her older brother, who was exiled under mysterious circumstances, is haunting her. While Billie dreams of her personal freedom, the one thing she desires the most is the reunion of her fractured family…
When the new sheriff of Pueblo, Colorado Jack McAllister takes over for his late father, Billie has more than just a chance to find what she’s been looking for. She gets a chance to love. Quite unwilling to take on his father’s badge, Jack has always been a rather reclusive man. But when he meets fearless Billie, he finds a spark that he’s been missing all this time. She and Jack set out to solve the mystery of her brother’s fate, but what they find will change their lives forever… Will he risk his chance for love for the sake of justice?
Their long journey takes them across Colorado, brings them into dire peril and hair-raising adventure, and opens the doors to a timeless romance. Love and loss, courage and wisdom, all tangled up with strategic games of power. Will Billie find the love she wants and the family she needs, or will it wind up costing her everything, even her life?
“A Quest of Love and Redemption” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.