About the book
Love has a mystical power to heal every scar on the soul...
Forced by her father to marry an older man she despises, Georgia Warton decides to escape her mundane life in Boston. Responding to a bride’s ad, she runs away to Texas to meet her new betrothed.
Sheriff James McCloud opens up his home and heart to his mail-order bride, desperate to find happiness once again. But her arrival triggers events he never expected, and along with a notorious gang that starts terrorizing the city, an unexpected visitor comes looking for her.
When one day Jame’s brother suddenly goes missing, Georgia is quick to follow. Shockingly, the message finally becomes clear: someone has a personal vendetta against him and it’s up to him to save them both.
Georgia Warton’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious, Daddy! That man is more than twice my age. What were you thinking?”
Charles, sixty years old, stood before his daughter, looking embarrassed but determined to press on with what needed to be said. “Listen, Pumpkin, he’s not that bad, really...”
Not that bad?! Georgia thought anxiously. Easy for you to say, Father. You’re not the one he wants to get his clammy old hands on. A shudder of disgust trembled through her stomach and she turned away toward the parlor window. A cold, gray December rain dripped on the glass.
“I mean, Abe’s a good man. And he’s been very good to us,” Charles pleaded. “He will be very good to you too. You’ll lack for nothing, my dear.”
“Come on, Daddy. What’s the catch? What have you two been up to? I know you and Mama would never even dream of playing matchmaker unless something happened. So come on now, out with it!” Georgia stared intently at her father for a moment, then turned her gaze towards Emilia, her mother, sitting on the sofa next to Charles. “Mama, are you in on this too?”
Emilia Warton sighed deeply, staring down at tightly clasped hands perspiring in her lap. “Well, dear, your father and I have talked it over, and really, there is no choice in the matter,” she said flatly. Emilia threw Charles a helpless glance, pleading for him to jump back into the conversation.
“Yes,” Charles boomed in a forced baritone, “there is no choice, I’m afraid, Pumpkin. Without your taking Abraham’s hand in marriage we will lose the business. Period. We can’t begin to cover the costs of the freighter going down last month. Abe stepped in and offered to bail us out – on one condition.”
Georgia’s jaw dropped again as a cold realization sunk in: her parents had given her away in marriage to save the family fortune. Her head reeled in disbelief. “You can’t be serious, Daddy. This is 1889, not 1700. People in Boston don’t do that anymore.”
Charles and Emilia looked at their daughter sadly. They didn’t appear to like the arrangement any more than she did. The sight of her parents in such a state broke Georgia’s heart. If they lost the shipping business, the family would be ruined financially. Her father would have to go work for another firm and take a drastic cut in income – if he could find a position at his age. There were no wealthy Warton relatives to bail them out; a fact that Abraham Bishop knew all too well and was willing to exploit to his carnal advantage.
“Okay,” Georgia said suddenly, breaking the tense silence and startling her parents. “If that’s the only way to save the business, I’ll do it. I can’t bear to see the two of you looking so awfully dour.” Georgia got up from the couch and took her mother’s hands in her own. “The Wartons will not be begging bread in the streets of Boston if I can help it, Mother.”
“Are...are you sure about this, Pumpkin?” her father asked hesitantly. “It would mean so much to your mother and I.”
“Yes! Yes, of course,” Georgia’s voice trembled, her eyes misting at the sight of her mother beginning to cry. “I will do my duty as your daughter.” She turned and walked quickly from the room, a little unsteady on her feet but determined to set her parent’s mind at ease. Closing the door behind her, Georgia heard Emilia burst into heaving sobs and Charles try to comfort her.
Seventeen-year-old William Warton stood at the foot of his sister’s bed with his hands on his hips. They were clenched into tight fists. His eyes were green like hers and they flashed with determination as he shook his head from side to side. “You can’t marry that man,” he said firmly. “You just can’t.”
Georgia, her tear-streaked face buried in a feather pillow, looked up at him and marveled at the boy’s concern. Dear William. He had always cared so much for her, his only sister. She looked at him and loved him. “You don’t understand, little brother. If I don’t marry that goat, we’ll lose the business and the Wartons will be penniless. Do you want that to happen?”
William didn’t hesitate a moment. “I don’t care! You’d be heartbroken if you took up with him, sis. I know it. I’d rather go to the poorhouse and break rocks for my breakfast than see you marry Abe Bishop.”
Despite her distress at the situation, Georgia smiled at the boy’s naivety and chivalry. “That’s all fine and well for a young buck like you to say, William Warton, but what about Mommy and Daddy? They wouldn’t last a week in Boston Almshouse. They’d die of the shame! Well, not Daddy maybe; but Mummy would keel over before she crossed the threshold. You know that. I can’t let it happen to them, Willy. Whatever it takes.” Georgia’s eyes began to fill with tears again.
William sat down on the bed next to her and put his hand on her shoulder. “There’s got to be another way, sis. Cheer up. I won’t let your life be ruined in this...this devil’s bargain. You’re only twenty-five years old. Too young to throw it away on an old man. If we put our heads together, we’ll find a way out.”
There was a sharp knock on the bedroom door. “Georgia?” The voice of her father boomed. “You have a caller in the parlor.”
In the well-appointed parlor of the Warton home, Abraham Bishop sat comfortably on one of the couches in the center of the room. One hand rested easily on the gold handle of his cane which he held in a vertical position, propped on the floor, swaying it from side to side playfully. The other hand nestled inside the vest of his formal suit jacket. Abe was sixty-three, short, and rotund. A small but distinctly self-satisfied smile played on his face as he waited to meet his fiancée for the first time since their betrothal.
On the couch across from him, Charles Warton tried to relax but his right foot kept tapping out a nervous rhythm on the floorboard. His natural, gregarious flow of conversation had trickled to a stop.
“What’s the matter, Warton? You seem distracted,” Bishop mused in an ironic tone. “Everything all right?”
“Yes. Yes, of course,” Charles replied quickly. He glanced through the doorway at the staircase leading upstairs to Georgia’s bedroom. The staircase she’d soon be descending to greet her future husband. He pushed the thought away. “And how is our business proceeding, Bishop?”
“Splendidly,” Abe replied. “As we agreed: half your creditors paid straight away, the rest in full on the first business day after the wedding. No need to worry.”
“No. Of course not,” said Charles, looking utterly unconvinced. A forced smile appeared on his face and quickly disappeared.
A sound at the top of the staircase caused both men to look up expectantly. Charles leaned forward. He saw William walk stiffly down the stairs toward them, a pained expression on the young man’s face. As he drew closer, Charles began to call out: “William, please come and say hello to your future brother-in...” His voice trailed off when William turned sharply at the bottom of the stairs and disappeared from sight.
“Well, well,” Bishop chortled, “seems like your son is having a hard time of it today as well.” Charles flushed with anger and began to reply, but he thought better of it as Georgia appeared on the staircase.
She descended slowly toward them, wearing a crinoline dress appropriate for the receiving of gentlemen callers. The expression on her face, however, was entirely inappropriate for the receiving of gentlemen callers. As much as she wanted to please her father – to show that his only daughter would not let the family down – Georgia could not hide the dismay welling up inside her. The more she tried to be composed and calm, the more waves of disgust washed over her heart.
What am I doing? This is crazy. Oh God, help me.
As she entered the parlor, Georgia averted her eyes from Abe Bishop. She couldn’t bear to look at him. She concentrated on her father – trying to draw strength from the sight of him, trying to remember why she was doing this. But it wasn’t working. Charles’s face looked as devastated as she felt inside. His green eyes were filled with pain and compassion. The sight of him made her feel even worse.
Abe Bishop’s raspy voice grabbed her attention like a splash of cold water. “Good afternoon, Georgia,” he slowly intoned. The sound of his voice was thin and hollow, with the hint of a salacious leer.
Just like your wicked soul, Abe Bishop, she thought in disgust.
“Come now, Georgia,” Charles said with forced cheerfulness. “Please have a seat, my dear.”
Georgia sat down obediently beside her father and glued her gaze on one of the floorboards. An awkward silence fell upon the room.
“Really, Georgia! It’s not as bad as all that, is it?” Bishop chirped. “You may even grow to like me in time.”
Charles looked at his silent daughter and then over at Bishop, shrugging in bewilderment at the older man. Neither of them had any idea where this conversation was going.
Georgia continued to stare at the floor for a long moment and then spoke in a quiet, even voice: “You mean I might grow to like you just like a woman in prison might grow to like the bars on the window of her cell, Mr. Bishop?”
The men shifted uncomfortably on their sofas. Georgia continued, her voice louder now: “You mean a caged bird can learn to sing, Mr. Bishop? Is that what you’re saying to me?” She looked up at Abe and met his eyes. They were cold, annoyed, and something cruel crouched in their depths. She held their gaze defiantly.
“I know nothing of poetry, Georgia...” Bishop began.
“Please...call me Ms. Warton.”
“As you wish.” Bishop’s face reddened with anger. “But in June we shall be married here in Boston, and I advise you to acquaint yourself with the idea, Ms. Warton,” he said icily. “Your father and I have an agreement, and if you decide not to appear, your whole family will shortly appear in Boston Almshouse! Good day to you both.”
Abe stood up quickly and lurched toward the parlor door, his cane thumping the floor loudly with each step. Charles followed after him. “Let me get your hat for you, Abraham!” Bishop plowed ahead without saying a word and angrily snatched up his derby hat on his way to the door.
“Please don’t be dismayed, my friend,” Charles pleaded. “Georgia didn’t mean what she said. She’s a very excitable young woman. Reads a lot of poetry, you know.”
“That daughter of yours needs to learn some manners, Warton,” Bishop growled over his shoulder before slamming the front door behind him without another word. Charles watched the old man climb slowly into a waiting carriage and bark orders to his driver. The driver whipped the reins and the horses started quickly away.
Charles turned back toward the parlor. Georgia was sitting on the couch with a sheepish look on her face. “I hope that wasn’t a deal breaker for you, Daddy,” she said apologetically.
Charles grunted in response. After a moment, he let out a soft chuckle and shook his head. “No. I’m sure he won’t give up that easily. But please try not to insult the man so gratuitously next time, Pumpkin.”
“You’re not mad at me then?” Georgia asked.
“How could anyone stay angry at a daughter like you, Ms. Warton?” Charles replied, a smile appearing on his face.
She rose up and threw her arms around his neck. “Oh Papa, what a world we live in! I wish I didn’t have to marry that man.”
Charles Warton looked up at the ceiling with a sigh. “I wish there was another way too, Pumpkin. I really do.”
As the time drew nearer for Georgia and Abe’s wedding, her anxiety grew with every passing day. Although her steely resolve remained intact to do the right thing for the family, Georgia began to doubt if she could actually go through with it. The thought of walking down the aisle as Abraham Bishop stood at the altar filled her with a sense of dread that she could not shake.
Abe appeared at the house again, a month after the first disastrous attempt to call on her. But the second time went no better than the first. Despite her best effort to be civil, it ended with Georgia comparing the betrothal to an old man robbing a baby carriage. Bishop was offended and angry: “Yes, I’m an old man,” he growled at her, “but I’m even more stubborn and intransigent than you are, child! You’re not going to get rid of me that easily, Ms. Warton.” He raised his cane in the air with one hand, shaking it at her to punctuate every word: “You will be my bride in June, and you’ll see what these insults will get you then!”
This time her father was deeply upset by the incident. Instead of returning to the parlor to speak with Georgia, Charles went upstairs where Emilia was waiting for him. The timid woman had again been too afraid to attend Bishop’s call. She could only wait alone, hoping for the best. Now she comforted her husband as best she could. “Don’t fret, Charles. Georgia will come around.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” he moaned. “Those two have fought like cats and dogs from the first sighting of each other. What are we going to do, Emilia? She hates the man.”
Late one February night in the New Year, Georgia was curled up alone on the sofa reading a book of poetry. A single oil lamp illuminated the Warton parlor. She was trying to distract her mind from the constant worry that had plagued her since the engagement and hoped that reading a few verses would help her relax and get to sleep. It wasn’t working.
Bishop had made no more attempts to call on her, but neither had he given any sign of withdrawing from the marriage plans. She felt trapped, and her soul was in constant turmoil at the prospect of what their wedding date in June would bring.
The sound of a carriage pulling up in front of the house caught Georgia’s attention. It must be Elias, she thought. Out making merry again. Her big brother, twenty-seven years old, stumbled into the foyer. “Hello, house!” he called out, poking his head around the corner and spying her on the sofa.
“What are you still doing up, dear sister?” he crowed with an inebriated smile. “Thought you’d be saving your strength for your Romeo.”
“Hello Elias,” she said flatly. “Must you be out drinking every night of the week and then come tripping in to wake people up with your shouting?”
Elias mugged an exaggerated frown. “Just making a little merry! But I understand. You’re a sour grape because Mother and Father are making you walk the plank with that lecher Bishop. And you know what? I don’t blame you one bit, sis. If I had to crawl into bed with that old geezer, I’d be climbing the walls too!” He laughed loudly as if she should find this remark hilarious. But then, Elias had never shown much concern for her feelings one way or the other, in any situation.
“Shut up, you drunk,” William’s voice called from the other door of the parlor.
“Oh-ho!” said Elias, turning his attention to the younger Warton. “Little brother to the rescue, as always. Sticking up for big sister, are we?”
“Somebody has to. Better than being a drunken cad who doesn’t care about anybody but himself,” William shot back.
“Stop it, both of you,” Georgia intervened. “You’re going to wake up Mama and Daddy.”
“Someone needs to wake them up,” Elias chortled darkly. “They’re selling you down the river for a barrel of cash, Georgie girl.”
William walked quickly into the room and took Georgia’s hand. “Come on, sis. I’ve got something to show you.” He led her out of the parlor and they started up the stairs. Elias stood in the doorway watching them go, swaying unsteadily on his feet.
At the top of the landing they turned into William’s room. He shut the door quietly then pulled open a drawer in his desk and grabbed a couple of newspapers. “Here,” he said, placing them in her hands. “Read these.”
“I don’t feel like browsing the paper at one in the morning,” Georgia groaned, “I just want to go to bed now.”
“Look at what it’s called,” he insisted. The boy took one of the newspapers and held it up in front of her face. “Matrimonial News. It’s a weekly that comes from Kansas City. Guys out west who are looking for a wife put ads in here. They tell you what they do for a living and everything. Even how tall they are.”
Georgia grabbed the paper from him and read the banner underneath the masthead:
Women need a man’s strong arm to support her in life’s struggle, and men need a woman’s love.
She flipped the paper open, found one of the bachelor’s ads, and read it aloud:
“A gentleman of 30 years old, 5 feet 3 inches, doing a good business in the city, desires the acquaintance of a young, intelligent, and refined lady possessed of some means, of a loving disposition from 18 to 23 and one who could make home a paradise.”
“Well I’m too old for that one,” she said in a defeated tone. “What are you trying to do here, Willy, find me a husband?”
“Yes,” he grinned.
She stared at him for a moment. “You’re serious?”
He nodded determinedly.
“But what about Mama and Daddy? If I don’t show up in June then Bishop won’t bail out the company. The family will be ruined.”
“That’s not true,” William replied. “I found out that Bishop inflated the freighter’s recovery costs to get his way with Father. He’s been lying to us all along and I’m going to prove it. You know what that means, sis? We’re off the hook! We don’t need Bishop’s loan and you don’t have to marry the old goat.”
Georgia was stunned by the news. “How did you get this information?”
“It doesn’t matter right now. Listen, it’s going to take months to prove what Evil Abe has been up to. I’ve got to be very careful and thorough because Father will never believe it without the seeing the proof. You know what he’s like. So that means you have to get out of Boston before the wedding, sis. I’ve got some cash saved up and if you sell your jewelry, that’ll be enough to get as far away from here as you want. Don’t worry, I’ll handle Mother and Father while you’re gone.”
An opportunity to escape marrying Abe Bishop without bankrupting the family was all Georgia needed to hear. She embraced William’s plan wholeheartedly, trusting him completely. She didn’t need to know all the details of Bishop’s corruption – she didn’t even care what they were. All she cared about was that a way out had appeared. An honorable way out.
Sweet William! He had always looked out for her. Now she marveled at how he had come through again. Just a boy of seventeen years old, yet so wise and kind. There was an urgent question pressing upon her mind, however.
“Where will I go?”
William looked down at the copies of Matrimonial News in Georgia’s hands. “You always said you wanted to meet a real cowboy some day, sis. Maybe this is the time.” He smiled at her. “So? What do you think?”
She stared at the window behind him, letting the new reality of the situation sink in for a moment. “Okay. What have I got to lose?” She burst into a happy grin and threw her arms around him. “Thank you, thank you, little brother! What would I have done without you?” She kissed him on the cheek and his face flushed with embarrassment.
“Go on now, get out of here,” William scolded with mock annoyance, waving her out of the room. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Georgia turned away with a smile, stole down the hallway to her room and threw herself excitedly on the bed. A thrill of freedom and relief ran through her body. She stretched out deliciously and let the feeling wash over her. After a minute, she closed her eyes and whispered a prayer: “Lord, this has all happened so fast. Thank you for making an honorable way out of the situation so that I don’t have to marry Mr. Bishop! Help Papa and Mama to understand. And I pray, dear Father, please help me find a husband who will be good for me and I for him. Wherever You choose to lead me. Amen.”
She opened the Matrimonial News. “Well, no use wasting any time then, I guess.” Flipping over a couple of pages, Georgia closed her eyes, reached out an index finger, and placed it squarely in the center of the page. Then she opened her eyes and read the ad her finger had landed upon:
Texas cattle rancher and sheriff, 30, near six foot tall, seeks mature woman to share matrimony and hard work in west hill country. Reply - 294
“Well, what do you know? There’s a cowboy in Texas looking for a wife,” she giggled. Georgia grabbed a sheet of paper from the bedside table and topped up her inkwell. Then, dipping the tip of a feather-quill pen into the ink, she began to write a reply to ad number 294.
Dear Sheriff. I am a Boston debutante fleeing from an arranged engagement.
“Oh, dear,” she said, “that will never do! I don’t want to scare the man off in the first sentence.” She threw the piece of paper into the wastebasket and started again.
I am a seamstress living in Boston, Massachusetts. I am 25 years old, 5’ 5” with green eyes, auburn hair, and a fine figure. I am an excellent cook and not afraid of hard work. I would love to come to Texas to meet you and see if we are a good match to share the matrimony you desire. I can pay for my own ticket. Please write back at your earliest convenience.
PS. I also like to play chess.
The next day she posted the letter but was careful to use a return address at a girlfriend’s house. She didn’t want the sheriff’s reply – if he replied at all – to be sent to the Warton home and somehow get intercepted by her parents or Elias. That would be disastrous. Her girlfriend, Annabelle, was married but her husband was an easygoing fellow and wouldn’t mind the mail arrangement at all.
A month later, Georgia was thrilled when Annabelle presented her with a letter posted from Sonora, Texas, by a Mr. James McCloud.
“Oh, that’s a fine strong name isn’t it, Annie? ‘James McCloud.’ I love it!”
“I wonder if he carries a six-shooter?” her friend giggled.
“He’s probably killed six or seven outlaws in gunfights, no doubt,” Georgia said with a chuckle. She tore the letter open and read it as Annabelle looked excitedly over her shoulder.
Dear Ms. Warton,
Thank you for your recent reply. I’m tickled pink to hear that you enjoy chess. I’ve been playing for years myself. It’s also good to hear you’re an excellent cook and a seamstress. Those things come in very handy on a ranch.
“What? You told him you’re a seamstress?” Annabelle exclaimed.
“What else was I going to say, Annie? Tell him I’m a Boston deb running away from an engagement to a rich old man? He would have thrown my letter in the garbage.”
I and my brother David own a fine spread near town running beef cattle. Our Aunt Martha cooks and runs the house. I’m sheriff of Sutton County, but am home most nights. If this sounds good to you I would very much like to meet you, Ms. Warton. The train stops in San Antonio and from there it’s two days by mail stage to Sonora.
“That sounds so romantic, Georgia: a cattle ranch in Texas! Can I come with you?” her friend smiled.
“Yes, absolutely. You and Alexander can chaperone us at the square dance on our first date.”
Annabelle laughed and then stopped abruptly. “Hey! You’ve got to do something about your wardrobe.”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you kidding? You told him you’re a seamstress. You can’t show up in Texas wearing your Boston best. You’ve got to downsize and downgrade your entire closet, girl!”
Georgia rushed home and wrote a quick reply to Texas.
Dear Mr. McCloud,
I have just received your letter and would be thrilled to come to Sonora and meet you and your family. I also look forward very much to playing chess with you! I will leave Boston in one week’s time.
She went directly to the post office to send the letter, then stopped by Annabelle’s house on the way home.
“That’s it, Annie, I’m on my way to Texas in a week. I just posted my reply.”
“I can’t believe it, this is so crazy romantic,” Annabelle smiled.
“Yes. It’s such a refreshing change from all those rude and boring callers over the years. Not to mention you know who.” Georgia rolled her eyes. “William reminded me that I always wanted to marry a cowboy someday. Maybe it really will come true. Who knows?”
“Are you scared?” Annabelle asked.
“Nah! What’s to be scared of? A fifteen-hundred-mile train trip all by myself and then a stagecoach ride across the wilds of Texas. It’s a piece of cake.”
They both laughed. “I’ve always loved your humor, Georgie.”
William and Georgia spent the next week smuggling her expensive wardrobe and jewelry out of the Warton house, piece by piece, and then selling it at various pawn shops around the city. With the money they raised doing this – plus a small amount of cash William had saved up for her – Georgia was able to purchase a second-hand seamstress wardrobe and a train ticket for Texas.
She stored her new clothes at Annabelle and Alexander’s house, along with a set of used luggage like the kind they thought a seamstress would own. Her very expensive luggage she gave to Annabelle as a farewell present.
On the appointed day, Georgia arrived at Annabelle’s in her debutante dress for the last time.
“Well, this is it, Annie. I want you to have this dress. I won’t be needing it anymore.”
“Oh, it’s gorgeous! Thank you.” They embraced warmly and Georgia went to Annabelle’s room to finish packing her bags and change into a plain gray traveling dress.
At 7:00 a.m. William appeared in a coach hired to get them to the train station. After he and the driver had loaded the luggage, the three of them climbed aboard and with a flick of the reins they were off.
“See? Told you so. I knew you’d marry a cowboy, sis,” William joked as they stood on the platform waiting for the westbound train to depart.
“You did not!” Georgia teased.
“Yeah, you’re right. I made that up.” They all laughed. “But I really do hope it works out for you two. You deserve someone special, sis, someone you can be happy with. That old geezer Bishop wasn’t the one for you.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Georgia laughed, then gave him a long hug. “Thanks for this, little brother. Thanks for everything.” They both blinked back tears and she turned to her friend to say good-bye. “I’m gonna miss you, Annie.”
“Write me. Lots.” Annabelle said. “I want to know all about this cowboy you’re going to marry.” They embraced once more and then Georgia stepped onto the train.
She popped her head out of a window and waved with a dramatic gesture. “Good-bye! Farewell!”
“God speed, sis,” said William, waving back and trying not to cry.
This was the first time Georgia had traveled a long distance alone and although she tried not to show it, she was very nervous. She resolved to spend most of her time in a window seat holding a book in front of her face, and trying not to attract the attention of anyone – especially men.
This worked well for the first few miles and Georgia began to relax. She gazed out the window, enjoyed the scenery, and started to read a collection of Walt Whitman poetry that Annabelle had given her as a present for the trip.
Well, this is not too bad at all. I could get used to this.
“Excuse me, Miss,” said a gruff voice, intruding into the midst of her Whitman. Georgia glanced up and saw a shabby-looking man in a bowler hat standing in the aisle. “Is this seat taken?” he asked with a smile.
“I’m sorry but it most certainly is,” she said in frustration, reaching into her carpetbag and putting a stack of books on the empty seat next to her.
“Oh. I see,” the man said with disappointment, his smile disappearing. “Excuse me, Miss. Sorry to trouble you.” He touched the brim of his hat and quickly found another seat.
Georgia heaved a sigh of relief and returned to her book.
One down, fourteen-hundred miles to go. How I wish Annabelle or William came with me.
Sheriff James McCloud and his brother David sat on their horses on a ridge overlooking the Golden Lane Ranch. A warm spring wind rustled the leaves of a nearby grove of oaks as they gazed down at their herds of longhorn cattle. “Mighty good to feel spring coming on,” James commented, his gray eyes ranging over the peaceful scene before them.
“Yes, sir,” David agreed, taking a deep breath of Texas air. “Ain’t no more beautiful season on God’s green earth.” David was a couple years older than James and a few inches shorter than his brother’s five feet, eleven inches. They differed in other ways, too. David’s thinning brown hair and pot belly stood in marked contrast to James’s broad shoulders, muscular build, and thick shock of black hair.
The younger brother was a rugged man of action, a lawman skilled at handling firearms and criminals. The older was more given to the contemplative life, a confirmed bachelor, though also a skilled rancher, horseman, and manager of the outfit’s finances. Beneath their wide Stetson hats the brothers wore wide handlebar mustaches and rugged range clothes consisting of brown canvas jeans, leather vests, and gingham shirts.
“When’s your young lady from Boston due in town?” David asked.
“Tomorrow,” James replied. “She’s taking the stage down from San Antonio.”
“Nervous?” David asked playfully.
“Naw!” James chuckled, looking over at him. “We exchanged a couple letters. I like the gal. She’s got spunk. Though, you think maybe I should’ve asked Georgia to send a photograph first?”
David burst into laughter and turned his horse toward Sonora, the small ranching town that could be seen just beyond the rolling hills of their range. “She didn’t ask for a picture of your ugly mug, now did she?” he said. “Fair enough then, you’re starting off even. Besides it seems plumb rude to ask a woman for her photograph before she comes for a visit.”
“I reckon,” James agreed. “Doesn’t seem like something a gentleman would do.”
“Good luck, little brother!” David called out as he nudged his horse forward. “I’m heading into town to do some business. Want me to pick some flowers for the little lady on my way back?”
“A dozen yellow roses to welcome a Boston gal to Texas,” James called after him.
David laughed again and started whistling the popular song Yellow Rose of Texas as he rode away.
When supper time had come and gone at the ranch house and David had not returned from town, James began to feel some concern. “Not like David to miss supper,” he mused as Aunt Martha cleared away the dishes.
A short, stout woman of sixty years, Martha was a family friend who had truly become family. She had stepped in to help raise the brothers when their mother died at a young age. The boys grew to call her Aunt Martha because she was the only real mother they had ever known. Still sporting a full mane of flaming red hair, she had a tough, firebrand attitude to match. “He probably got invited over for a meal somewhere,” Martha laughed, “Lord knows how that boy can never resist good home cooking.”
“No doubt about that,” James chuckled in response.
The sound of a rider approaching at a gallop caused him to push back from the table. “Maybe that’s him now. Sounds like something’s up.” James buckled on his gun belt, checked his pistol, and stepped out onto the veranda.
A ranch hand quickly swung down from the saddle and tied his horse to the rail in front of the house. It was Francisco, a young Mexican who had been with them for a couple of years. “Señor James!” he shouted.
“What is it, Francisco? What happened?”
He bounded up the steps to James and paused a moment to catch his breath. “A group of desperadoes stormed the town when Señor David was there. They took your brother away.”
“What?! How did they do that?” James demanded.
“They were on their horses, hollering and shooting into the air. They had a Comanche with them and I saw him jump down from his horse, put a dart in a hollow stick and shoot it at Señor David with his mouth. The dart hit David, he fell down. With the help of another man, the Comanche threw him onto his horse and they rode out of town. I’m sorry, Señor James. It happened so fast, I could not do anything to help your brother.”
“Did you see who these men were?”
“No, they were all wearing bandanas on their faces.”
“Shoot!” James muttered to himself. “It’s not your fault, Francisco. Gracias for riding here as fast as you can to tell me. Why would anybody want to kidnap my brother? He ain’t got no quarrel with anyone, he’s a peaceable man.”
“I do not know; it makes no sense,” Francisco responded.
Unless some hombre is trying to get revenge on me, James thought. It’s always a possibility for a lawman.
He could think of no one who might be holding a grudge against him at the present time, however. It had happened once or twice in the past – as it did for every lawman – but those matters had all been dealt with. The men who came after him were all either dead or in jail serving a long sentence.
“We need to form a search party, Francisco. Go inside and get some grub while I round up a couple of the boys and get the horses ready. Maybe we can pick up their trail and find out where they’re headed with David.”
“Sí, Señor. Gracias.” Francisco turned and went into the ranch house where Aunt Martha already had a hot plate of food on the table for him.
Although the search party had a couple of hours of daylight to work with and there were experienced trackers among them – including James himself – they had little success in following the kidnappers. The gang had split up quickly after abducting David and it was impossible to determine which horse carried the unconscious body of the sheriff’s brother. Whoever led the outlaws saw to it they made their escape well.
As darkness fell, the searchers were still making no headway, so with a heavy heart James called a halt and they rode back toward Sonora. The men were silent for a couple of miles, puzzling over the mysterious abduction. Finally the deputy sheriff, Ben Leary, turned to James and said, “Sorry we lost the trail back there, Boss. I’ll have the boys back out at dawn. We’ll pick it up.”
“I don’t know, Ben,” the sheriff said thoughtfully, “they covered their tracks as well as I’ve seen anyone do it. The only solid clue we got is that a Comanche was with ‘em. Think I’ll ride over to their camp tomorrow while you boys are searching. Maybe they can tell us who this dart-shooter is.”
“Sounds good, Boss,” Leary said. He looked at the silhouette of his colleague riding beside him in the moonlight. James looked lonely and forlorn. They had worked together for five years now, and Ben had never seen his boss so discouraged. Of course, no one had ever kidnapped a member of his family before. It was understandable. Leary was a wiry, tough man with the scarred hands of a boxer and a fighter, yet also a close study of human nature. He felt bad to see his friend so distressed.
“Hey, don’t you got to make a detour down to the stage station tomorrow? Thought that Boston woman was getting into town?” Ben said, trying to divert the sheriff from the seeming sadness of his brooding.
“Shoot. I forgot about that,” James startled. “The stage ain’t in ‘til afternoon, though. That’ll give me time to get out to the Comanche camp in the mornin’ and see what I can find.” He paused for a moment. “You know, there’s something about this situation that just ain’t adding up, Ben.”
“Women are hard to figure out, Boss.”
“No, not that – although that’s sure enough the gospel truth, ain’t it?”
Leary let out a bemused grunt of agreement.
“I mean David’s kidnapping. He don’t have an enemy in this world. You know there ain’t a mean bone in that man’s body, Ben. So whoever is behind this is after something or someone else. Probably me.” He fell silent for a moment. “It can’t be the family of that outlaw I killed last year. We already dealt with that. So what are these kidnappers after? It just ain’t adding up.” The deputy sheriff had no response. He turned his gaze back to the moonlit countryside and thought some more about it, searching for answers.
The next morning, James was on the trail before dawn. He was travelling alone because all of their available men were either needed at the ranch or continuing the search party. He was concerned for his brother’s safety, but had no worries for his own.
If someone wanted to kill the Sheriff of Sonora they would have tried it already instead of kidnapping David.
The trail to the Comanche encampment cut through the rolling terrain of the West Texas Hill Country for some twelve miles. After a few hours of travel, James arrived to find their camp well-positioned between limestone outcrops for protection from the elements, and close to a good supply of wood and water.
Dismounting his horse and leading it by the reins, he walked the last hundred yards toward them to let everyone know that his intentions were peaceful. The Comanche wars had been over in west Texas for ten years, but the sheriff was taking no chances. He also believed that if a person got down off their high horse and met people eye to eye then they were much more inclined to be friendly and open. It was a simple matter of respect. He knew the Comanches had many good reasons not to trust the white man after a century of troubled relationships. But he found that his approach was generally well received among them, too.
The camp was a collection of some two dozen tipis. Cooking fires burned in the open with men and women gathered around them. Children and a few dogs ran about playing. James stopped at the edge of the camp and waited. Eventually a young man got up from his position near a tipi and approached him. As he got nearer, James saw him notice the metal sheriff’s badge pinned on his vest.
“You have come to see our chief, lawman?”
“Yes,” James replied, “I wish to talk with him about something.” The man led him to one of the tipis, disappeared inside for a moment, and then poked his head back out, motioning for James to enter. The sheriff looked around and tied his horse to a pole before ducking into the lodge, removing his hat as he did so.
“Don’t worry, lawman, your horse is safe outside,” his guide said with an ironic tone and the hint of a smile.
“I know the Comanche are the greatest horse raiders in all the Plains,” James replied respectfully, his eyes adjusting to the dim light inside the lodge.
“Yes, we were once great raiders,” the voice of an older man said, “but that day has gone the way of the buffaloes now.” The chief was sitting on a blanket across from him, beckoning with his hand for the visitor to have a seat. James accepted the invitation, and his guide also sat down with them.
“I’m James McCloud, Sheriff of Sutton County.”
“So I see,” the chief said, glancing at the metal badge. “I am Chief Jaquana of the Nokoni Comanche. You are here to talk business, Sheriff?”
“Yes, sir,” James began. “Chief, there was a raid on Sonora yesterday: a white man’s raiding party, but one of your men was among them.”
Chief Jaquana’s eyebrows rose up in surprise. “We are not so foolish to attack the white man’s city. The wars are over for us, Sheriff, except the fight to keep our ways alive. This Comanche was not of our camp.”
“You know who he is then?” James asked.
“He was carrying a dart flute?” Jaquana asked.
“Yes. We know him. He is a wanderer away from the Wanderers. That is what Nokoni means, Sheriff: wanderers. But this man has a bad spirit in him. Our medicine woman could not cure him of it. He never stopped causing trouble for us, so we made him go.”
“What is his name?”
“He is Blue Shadow.”
“Blue Shadow?” James repeated; puzzling at the strangeness of the name.
“Yes. This Nokoni is a master at selecting herbs and mushrooms for his darts. When he mixes them, his hands are stained with the color of the medicine. They have become blue like the shadows and the stain is so deep it never washes away.”
James shuddered involuntarily at the image of a stained, banished Indian, sent away from his wandering tribe to drift alone among the hills and valleys of Texas. “How did he join with the gang of white men who raided Sonora and took my brother captive?”
“Your brother?” Chief Jaquana asked.
“Yes sir, it was the Comanche’s dart that put my brother to sleep. They threw him onto Blue Shadow’s horse and escaped.”
“He is an excellent horseman,” the chief remembered, “like so many of our people. But I do not know how he came to join the white men, or why; except that – as we know too well, Sheriff – Blue Shadow was born to trouble and is quick to find it wherever it hides. He is, as you white men say, an outlaw.” The chief paused for a moment. “I hope your brother will be returned to you in good health.”
“Thank you, Chief Jaquana. So do I.”
The chief smiled. “Will you stay and smoke the pipe with me?”
“I cannot this day, sir. The time is too short. And there is a woman waiting in the town.”
“Ah, a woman,” the chief intoned. “A man will ride many miles for a good woman he can bring into his lodge. I am blessed by the Big Father to have three such in my tipis.”
“I think one is all this cowboy can handle,” James smiled.
“Then may this one bring you much happiness, Sheriff.”
James nodded, turned toward the exit and stepped outside again, where his horse was still standing by the pole.
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