Authors: Sawyer Belle
Silver Nights With You
Copyright © 2014 Sawyer Belle
All rights reserved
This book is dedicated to my undervalued and overlooked home state.
Home means Nevada to me.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously
I would like to take this opportunity to extend my most heartfelt gratitude to Danielle and Amanda for their insight and aid. To R.C. Matthews, thank you for giving me vision when I couldn’t see and for sacrificing your own time and works to set me back on the right path. Your help has been truly invaluable.
No acknowledgment would be complete without mentioning my wonderful family, who quietly take a back seat during the chaotic stage of editing. Your selflessness inspires me.
Gold Canyon, Nevada Territory
No amount of oil could silence the creaks or soften the edges of the old leather saddle. Morgan pulled the reins to halt his horse and groaned as he shifted back and forth. His younger brother, Valentine, stopped beside him and chuckled, leaning forward to brace a forearm across the saddle horn. He tipped his hat back off his forehead.
“Problems in your pants there, brother?” Valentine teased.
“Nothing like a sharp wedge of rawhide riding my ass crack,” Morgan said, dabbing his forehead with the back of his sleeve. The inside of his mouth felt gritty from his last taste of the alkali water they’d pulled from the springs several hours before. Dark circles of sweat spread wide beneath his armpits.
They’d been riding four days straight through nothing but barren desert, heading west toward nowhere in particular and Morgan could feel his patience running as thin as their sulfuric water supply. He untied the canteen from his saddle and wetted his mouth. His black hat was thick with dust so he pounded it against his thigh, baring his dark brown hair to the desert heat. Dampened with sweat, it curled softly, the foremost locks falling to tease the creases near his temples.
A few dribbles of water escaped his swallow and fell over his chin. The entire lower half of his face was so coarse with dark stubble he could light a matchstick off of it. His eyes, an iridescent light brown, stung from dryness and dirt, and he rubbed them wearily before replacing his hat.
“Hot damn, Val. Are we done chasing the wind yet? Surely that run-in with the Lahontans was enough adventure to satisfy your energy?”
The young, handsome face of his brother smiled over at him. It was like looking in the mirror.
“Careful, Morg. You’re starting to show your old age.”
“Yeah, well, looking after your reckless hide all these years hasn’t done me any favors.”
“Oh, come on, now.
favors?” Val asked with a suggestive lift of an eyebrow. “You haven’t had your share of pleasure in the process? That paddleboat down the Missouri proved profitable for you at the tables. And I’m sure Marianne didn’t sour the experience any.”
“What good did it do us?" Morgan snorted. "You went and blew the entire lot in Texas.”
“True, but if I hadn’t we would have never driven cattle up into Colorado with the Bar JR boys.”
“Can that qualify as driving cattle? The Mexicans chased us into Colorado. The cattle just happened to come with us.” He chuckled and shook his head. “What a way to learn the cattle were stolen from across the Rio Grande.”
Val laughed. “I believe the foreman called it comeuppance for the horses those Mexicans took. Even still, without them you'd have never got it into your thick head to turn cattleman one of these days.”
“Why not?” Morgan asked, raising his arms out to his sides. “It was a good experience. We learned a lot and it’s an honest living. Much better than your idea of racing from town to town looking for the sweetest pot of honey.”
Val sighed and shook his head. “I do enjoy the sweet stuff. What can I say?”
Morgan's smile faded. He and Val had some good larks, but he was ready for a quieter life. Val was full of itches that needed scratching, and Morgan knew he had enabled that aimless existence for the four years since their folks died. Halfway through his thirties, he had nothing to show for it but a string of small adventures. It was time for a slower pace, and God willing, a wife and family, too.
“Seriously, Val. We’re one state away from the coast. There’s nowhere to go from there. What do you plan to do after that?”
“Hell if I know. There’s always the sea.” Val grimaced at the disobliging look on Morgan’s face. “Don’t tell me you’re really thinking of settling down somewhere?”
“Yeah, I reckon so." Morgan dipped his head and pursed his lips. "I’m thirty-five in a year, a full decade more than you. I’m tired of wandering, kid.”
“Aw, we’ll just get you a new saddle. That’s all you need. Once you can sit more comfortably, you won’t care how long you’re doing it.”
Morgan blew out a breath. “You haven’t thought about settling down
Val glanced over and shrugged. “I haven’t found a place that’s given me a reason to stay. Besides, how are you gonna settle when we’ve got nothing? It’s not like you can just pick a plot of land and dream up timber and cattle.”
“True enough,” Morgan nodded. “But if we stayed put in one place and held onto our money it could work. All it takes is a fence, a house and a posted notice, and we’ve got ourselves a homestead.”
Val sighed and nudged his horse into a walk. “And what place has sunk into your heart enough for you stay put in, brother?”
Morgan tapped the flanks of his horse. Cresting the swell of a sandy hill, they stood still once again to look down and admire a lush valley with a wide, clear lake and thick forests laid against a backdrop of grand mountain spires. He felt a twinge in his chest, a calling, and at once saw his life there in the fertile land.
“This would do just fine,” he finally answered.
Val scoffed and rolled his eyes. “You’re a man of few needs. I think you’d be happy anywhere.” His gaze fell inward. “I envy that of you.”
“You mean you require more than my company for happiness?” Morgan teased.
Val laughed. “Come on. Let's get out of here before your crazy notions take root and grow limbs.”
Morgan shook his head softly while he chuckled. He looked at the valley floor and kissed it goodbye, knowing that Val was not ready to slow down. They moved through the loose desert floor at a slow canter for a while before Morgan felt a dip in his horse’s hind leg. He slowed to a trot and peered back. As suspected, the horse was carrying his hoof high above the ground.
“Hold up, Val,” he called, dismounting. He spoke in low, soothing tones to calm the animal whose legs were quivering beneath his palm. He ran his hands over the muscles, noticing where and when the animal tensed. A thumb-sized spindly burl had lodged itself into the coarse hair near the horse’s fetlock. He unsheathed his knife and worked carefully at cutting it out. Once it was dislodged, he massaged the spot to ease the animal’s suffering. When he lifted the hoof to examine it, he stared in wonder at the metal shoe.
It glimmered in a thin coat of dust and Morgan’s brow creased. Using the pad of his thumb, he wiped the surface clean and held his finger up to his eyes. It was a fine powder that spread from one finger to the next as he rubbed them all together. He examined the next hoof, finding it there as well. By the time he had checked all four, his hand was coated in the stuff. The daylight glinted off of it, shining like ground up sun rays.
Soft. Burnished. Golden.
He sucked in a breath, coughing in disbelief as a deep round of laughter shook his shoulders.
“Hey Val!” he called out. “You say you haven’t found a place that’s given you a reason to stay?”
“Yeah,” Val answered warily as he brought his horse around.
“Well, how about now?” He held his palm up to the sunlight and watched it beam like the hand of God in the white desert sky.
Val’s eyes widened, and a slow smile split his face. He leapt from his horse and picked up a hoof, finding the shoe coated. He swiped it with his palm and held his hand up. His breaths fell heavier, and he panted silently for a long minute. Finally, Morgan grasped his brother’s golden palm in his, and together they laughed.
Two years later
The late-summer heat pressing down across the desert with the weight of a full-bellied sun was far worse than any summer she had experienced in the hills of Virginia. The windows of the stage coach were open, their curtains furled to let a hot breeze blow across the sweat-dampened necks of the occupants, and Lila pitied the mules pulling them across the stretch of dull, brown desert. She leaned against the thick leather strap that served as a back for the middle of three bench seats and heaved a weary sigh. Where was this golden California anyway?
Having traversed the Central Overland Trail across forests and hills, flat plains, thick mountain passes and blinding desert, she wondered if they had already seen everything glorious the country had to offer. She reached up and unclasped the tiny mother-of-pearl buttons at her throat and unfolded her collar to expose the glistening flesh of her chest and throat just above her camisole. A swift frown from her father in the seat across made her redo the last two buttons, but she stopped there. She didn’t care if the entire Union army saw the swell of her cleavage. The heat was so thick that it hovered above the ground for miles.
“Are you trying to cause a scandal, Lila?” her father asked quietly.
“No, I am trying not to faint.”
His eyes softened, and his voice lost its edge. “I’m sure we’re nearing the next station. A quick stretch of the legs ought to do you some good.”
She turned her face from his and gazed at the outside world. “I’m still not talking to you,” she declared.
She hadn’t wanted to leave Virginia. Begged him to stay, in fact, but he would hear none of it. The flowers had barely begun to sprout from her mother’s fresh grave before he was liquidating their belongings and packing up their life to head west. He told her the east coast was congested and swarmed with corruption. Talk of war spread from parlor to parlor while salacious tales of golden riches near the Pacific graced the papers.
He promised her adventures, but she wanted no part of it. She relished her life and home in Virginia, where she had friends and suitors and the comfort of knowing what to expect each day. There, she had reminders of her mother everywhere. Each room held a memory, every neighbor had a tale. There was no place in their town unvisited by Lynn Cameron, and the idea of traveling where she was unknown gnawed on Lila's heart. She threatened never to speak to her father again if he took her away, and but for the odd reply to his questions, she had made good on her promise in the six weeks they'd been traveling.
They’d gone by train to the Missouri River, booked passage on a steamboat north to Kansas and boarded the stagecoach in Atchison. Each passenger was only allowed twenty-five pounds of baggage. They’d had to leave her trunks behind. Yet one more beautiful thing stripped from her, she thought. Her father needed half of her valise to transport medical supplies and now the bag resting on her lap housed only two day dresses, a plain nightgown, and her most prized possession: a photograph of her mother taken two years ago. That alone was why she kept the bag on her lap instead of securing it up top with the other passengers’ luggage.
She pinched her eyes against the sudden moisture. In all of her life she had only seen four photographs, and two of them were in the photographer’s shop in Boston. Her parents took her to the city for a month of holiday, and they were introduced to the photographer at a dinner party. He fussed over her mother's beauty and begged to immortalize it. Within the week, they found themselves spending an entire afternoon attempting to capture the image of Lynn Cameron.
The day was comical, with Lynn unable to sit still or keep from laughing for the necessary hour of the exposure. It took a hidden clamp to hold her head straight and a stern lecture from the man on relaxing her mouth, but Lynn refused. It was wholly against her nature, she exclaimed, and she would rather be forgotten than to be remembered with a frown.
The photographer declared it impossible for a person to smile for an hour and warned the final effect would be a blurred mouth. Lynn happily took up the challenge, and won. The result was a beautiful portrait of Lila’s mother seated at a desk, her arms folded primly, the lacy edges of a fichu lying across her torso, her brown hair bundled and hidden mostly beneath a flowery bonnet.
And the smile. Lila silently thanked God that she could still see her mother’s smile every day.
The coach wheels bumped over the hard ground, and she winced as her eyes opened again. Her pleated skirt and slip made poor padding for her tender backside slamming against the hardwood bench, and she regretted her decision to wear a corset. Her chestnut hair was piled atop her head and roasting her scalp beneath a crisp felt hat the cerulean color of her dress.
The long-sleeved bodice stretched over her arms and torso with a v-shaped bottom and a high-collar that teased the underside of her chin. The buttons she'd undone were the first in a single line that stretched the entire length of the bodice. She considered it her best dress of the three she still owned, but at the moment she wanted nothing more than to shed it so she could ride around in her corset and bloomers. Tiny beads of sweat trickled down her back and in between the deep cleft of her breasts. She worked the paper fan back and forth in front of her throat to cool the areas not touched by the breeze.
For the past twenty days aboard the coach they’d ridden day and night with only brief stops to change the mules, freshen up, eat a few bites and walk around. Just days ago they left the greenery and cool mountain streams of the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake. Though they were warned that the stretch between Utah and the Sierra Nevada Mountains would be long and strenuous, she had not been prepared for heat that made her toes slick, thirst that wilted her throat and dryness of air that sliced through each breath.
The road began to slope and curve, sweeping around a hill encrusted with sagebrush before the ground melted away from them, and she gasped. The mountains, the highest peaks of which had only been visible above the mellow jut of desert floor before, now spread into the lowest point of a valley in strokes of deep lavender and bristlecone blue. Millions of diamond-points glistened off of the surface waters of a lake at the bottom while a verdant roll of emerald growth sped away from it to huddle in the ankles of the mountains.
“Is this it?” she asked on the back end of a deep breath.
“What?” Her father looked up from his book.
“California." The word passed softly through her lips.
Argyle Cameron, nearly three times his daughter’s age, leaned his gray head out of the coach windows. Though he appraised the scene with awe, he shook his head at her ignorance.
“No,” he answered. “California is on the
side of the Sierras where the endless stretch of ocean can be seen from any one point.”
Lila sighed and rolled her eyes. “Well, California or not, this is a bit of Eden after miles of nothing but sand and sun. I’ll wager our mules would consider that lake a far greater salvation than the entire expanse of the sea.”
Other passengers leaned toward the windows for a glimpse of greenery, but before they could send their prayers of thanksgiving to the heavens, the coach veered away from the view and disappeared once again into the brown hills near Mt. Davidson. Lila had just practiced a harsh swallow of imaginary water down her throat when the crack of a gunshot split the air. Fearful faces glanced from one to another.
“Was that what I think it was?” she asked her father, but he didn’t have time to answer.
More shots came in quick succession, one blasting into the side of the carriage near Lila. Slivers of wood splintered off of the windows with a metallic zing and flew inside, slicing her cheeks. She held her hands up to protect her face as more bullets ripped at the transport. Her body lurched as the mules bolted forward and away from the threat. Argyle reached across and tried to push her head down for cover, but the valise was too bulky. She yelped in protest as he grabbed the bag and threw it out of the window. As she watched her possessions fall to the ground, the dead body of the coach driver followed and tumbled beneath the rattling wheels. She screamed before she felt the arms of her father pinning her down to cover her.
The other women cowered near their knees while men covered them and fired their pistols out of the windows. Lila knew her father never carried a gun. He was a healer who did his best to save lives, not take them. His shrunken elderly frame was the only shelter she had from whizzing bullets and wooden debris. The thought of her remaining parent dying in a barren desert woke an anger that pushed fear aside.
They had braved miles of Indian territory with their scalps intact. She wouldn't just cower while they lost their last twenty-five pounds of property, and she wouldn't lose her father, too. Not without a fight. She pushed Argyle off her, pulled a derringer pistol from her boot and aimed it out of the window. Her father stared at the gun, no bigger than her palm, and his mouth fell into a wide circle of shock.
“Where did you get that?”
“Ft. Kearny,” she answered before turning her attention to the approaching threat. A quick survey showed four riders, their faces hidden behind bandanas, swarming toward them with pistols braced in each hand. When the first bandit drew near enough, she pulled the trigger. The crack of multiple firing guns filled the air like thunder, and he fell from his saddle and bounced off of the spinning wheels.
As shots continued to ring out, the other three bandits wove in and out of view, and Lila saw the coach’s conductor, the last man controlling the mules, fall to the ground. She knew then that they were racing at a breakneck pace without a driver. That left only three guns, including hers, to fire back at the bandits.
A young man inside the coach stood as much as the space allowed and removed his coat, as if the thought of scrambling out to take hold of the reins was too dirty a job for his good attire. As soon as he threw open the door he was shot back into his seat. Blood sprayed from his shoulder, and Argyle scrambled over six dovetailed laps to care for the wound as they all jostled about.
So engrossed in the injured man, she missed the approach of another bandit until he clutched onto the wooden railing beside her. He jumped from his horse and plastered himself against the door, and she recoiled against her seat with a shriek. Sunlight glinted off of a shiny onyx ring on his little finger as he reached in, grasping for her throat, but his fist closed around the open side of her collar instead. She raised the derringer again.
Before she could pull the trigger, the echo of a far-off shot reverberated through the coach, and she felt the warm spray of blood across her face as the man’s body went limp and fell from view, taking a large chunk of her collar and camisole with him. The rear wheels thumped over his body, causing the coach to tilt dangerously toward the ground. She braced herself, but the carriage soon slammed back down onto its supports and rattled away.
She wiped at the blood on her cheeks, smearing it onto the sleeve of her dress and looked out the window to see where the shot had come from. Another rider stood on the horizon, a long black coat cloaking his body while his hat and a long-barreled rifle obscured his face. She watched the slow shift of the barrels toward the remaining two bandits. Mauve clouds of desert dust shot into the air as his shells hit the brush. The two bandits finally broke away from the coach and disappeared over a hill.
The lone gunman kicked his horse toward them and their runaway mules. Spellbound, she watched him maneuver his mount slightly ahead of them, and just as the coach raced past, he leapt from his saddle and landed in the leather rigging of the harnesses. She stretched further to see as he righted himself and hoisted up onto the wooden seat of the wagon. Digging his heels into the boards, he yanked back with his full might. They skidded to a halt, and the air was at once full of relieved sighs and grateful wails.
Lila collapsed back against the leather and shut her eyes with a sigh as her shoulders drooped. Adrenaline pulsed through every inch of her. Her eyes sprang open as the man pulled open the door. Stilted breath leapt up into her throat. Sunlight washed over his golden hair, a thin mustache brushing against his upper lip. His smile was wide and produced two dimples on either cheek. He wore the crisp clothes of a gentleman beneath his long, black duster. Bright bluebell eyes beamed down at her, and Lila was mesmerized. She stared at his features until her eyelashes fluttered and her lungs burned for breath.
Forgotten was the state of her dress. Soft, large waves of light brown hair fell from beneath her skewed hat to tumble over the flesh swelling out of the edge of her corset, and she felt a blush work its way up to her cheeks. He looked from the deep line of her cleavage to the soft pout of her mouth.
“Are you all right, Miss?”
“Yes, thank you,” she whispered. “That was so brave of you.”
“Indeed, sir,” her father echoed. “We are forever in your debt.”
“David Gardner, at your service,” the man replied. “Since the hills have run rich with gold and silver, every conman and criminal from Boston to San Francisco has found a nesting place here. I was merely in the right place at the right time.”
“Where are we?” Argyle asked.
“You are in between the Dayton and Carson stations, nearly five miles from Virginia City, my good man.”