Authors: Sawyer Belle
“Won’t you sit, Lila?” David asked, turning over an empty crate beside him. She lowered herself onto it, sparing another quick glance at Morgan as she did so. Once she was settled, the three men sat down again, and Morgan handed plates around.
It was the best meal Lila had ever tasted, probably because it was the hungriest she’d ever been. She ate every last crumb, every last drop of gravy and butter and smiled sheepishly at the amused faces of the men watching her as she dabbed at the corners of her mouth with a linen napkin. Though she did her best to keep her eyes on their faces and not on their beautiful bodies, it was a task she wasn’t sure she was equal to.
When she arrived in the stables, Morgan had to blink several times before he realized it was her. The lighting from which she emerged was dim and the first thing he’d seen was women’s boots and men’s trousers. His eyes darted quickly up to see her smooth white face, clean of blood and dust, barely a hint of cuts, shining with refreshment. The sleeves of her shirt were wide and loose, but the rest of it, and the vest over it, molded to her breasts. The shadows cast by the light revealed their full size and weight, completing the partial vision bared to him just hours ago, and he fought a sudden stirring in the lower region of his body.
Finding them only half-dressed had startled the wits out of her. Embarrassment flushed across her features as she backed away. The food tray teetered; she babbled incoherently, and never took her eyes off of David. Morgan could see his dinner threatening to spill all over a bed of straw. So, he'd rescued the food and was rewarded with a thick waft of roses flowing from her skin. It intoxicated him almost as much as the light of surprise and attraction he saw film over her eyes.
He watched her eat out of the corner of his eye, mindful of the disappointment he felt at her sitting beside David and her eagerness to be there. Her glances were nervous, no doubt due to their lack of clothing.
“Forgive our indecent state of undress,” Morgan said, trying to ease her embarrassment. “Our shirts are hanging to dry after a good scrubbing.”
“As long as you’ll forgive mine,” she returned as she tended to her plate. “I lost my valise during the robbery and well…you all know what my dress looked like.”
“Oh, there’s nothing wrong with what you’re wearing,” David said, eyeing the curve of her breasts while she obliviously worked at cutting up her meat. “Nothing at all.”
Morgan scowled and fought the urge to throw a fist in his face. He and Val shared a look of disapproval, and Val elbowed David with a shake of his head. David only held his hands up in mock innocence and mouthed the word “what?” Morgan bit back his anger and shoved a spoonful of food into his mouth.
“My goodness,” she said a moment later as she finished her last bite. “What must you all think of me?”
“That you eat like a man, dress like a man, shoot like a man,” David rattled before showing his dimples again. “But look like an angel.”
Lila smiled as her ears turned crimson. “You are too kind, David.”
“Shoot like a man?” Val inquired.
“She took down one of the coach robbers on her own,” David explained.
“Only because he was so close,” Lila deflected. “I wouldn’t have had much chance of hitting him if he’d been farther away.”
“I think it’s much harder to shoot a man up close,” Morgan began in seriousness. “The aim might be easier, but to watch the life leave his eyes, to stare death in the eyes...that’s the part that’s hard to shake.” Morgan saw a fleeting look of regret in her face before she steeled her features.
“Well, to be honest it all happened so fast. It was sort of surreal. I don’t even remember what he looked like.”
“Then count yourself blessed,” he returned, though he didn't fully believe her.
“Have you killed a man before?” she asked.
“Two.” He thought back on the memory. “It was a barroom brawl that I neither sought nor started. A stupid, senseless waste of life that I regret.”
Her face softened with pity, but David soon drew her attention with a dismissive laugh.
“You shouldn’t suffer over it so much, Morgan,” he said flippantly. “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. I’ve killed more than two men and haven’t lost a second of sleep over it. Life is hard. You’ve got to be ready to die or kill at any moment. If you’re going to spend your life crying over it you may as well have let the other guy kill you. Surely, he wouldn’t have wasted any of his time thinking about you.”
“Compassion is the mark of a civilized world,” Morgan replied. “It’s what separates us from the animals.”
David snorted. “Compassion will get you killed.”
“Not as quickly as arrogance,” Morgan shot back with a direct gaze, and David lost his smile, peering hard across the stall at Morgan.
“Well, I’m still here,” David finally said.
“As am I.”
Morgan always considered David more an acquaintance than a friend, but it was moments like these that made his dislike fester. The man seemed to grasp at any opportunity to rattle his sabre at Morgan. Since the first day they met, there was a thick undercurrent of challenge coming from him, though Morgan never indulged or encouraged it. He considered it the hotheadedness of youth and was content to allow Val's cool nature smooth over the rough edges of David's demeanor. How those two had become such fast friends he'd never understood, and it was Val who calmed the air now by waving his hand to break the heat stretching between them.
“And Lila and I are still here, too,” he said with a laugh. The men looked away from one another, and Lila cleared her throat.
“So, do you think the other two bandits will be caught?” she asked.
David shook his head. “I doubt it. These criminals strike and move on. They rarely stay in the same place they commit the crime in.”
“I don’t know about these ones, though,” Morgan cut in. “Since this is the third hold up in six weeks it may be the same outfit.”
Lila’s eyes widened. “The third robbery in six weeks?”
Morgan nodded, but David spoke.
“Those two robberies were on the stage
Carson, not going
“So, what?” Morgan asked, and David’s features tightened.
“So…it is obvious why anyone would attack the stage bound for California. It’d likely be carrying bars of silver. Why would anyone attack a stage full of passengers?”
“I don’t have the mind of a criminal,” Morgan said. “I cannot discern why anyone would attack any stage at all, but the fact is that these men
attack a stage full of passengers. I don’t think it’s that far of a leap to assume it's the same group of boys.”
“Well, if the next stage robbery happens at the hands of only two men instead of four then I’d say you are probably onto something.”
“The next one?” Lila said. “My God, you speak as if this is commonplace.”
“I expect it will be,” Morgan said. “There is a lot of wealth here and some men would rather steal it than earn it.”
“You mean the bankers?” Val laughed, and Lila joined him with a chuckle.
“Are all of you miners?” she asked and received three different replies.
Val explained for her. “I got a claim. Well, technically Morgan and I have a claim we work ourselves, but after working it for the last two years he abandoned it…today, actually.” Morgan frowned at the word
. Hadn’t he offered to give, not sell, but
his half of the claim to any man of Val’s choosing?
“David…” Val continued with a slight pause and a swift glance at his friend, “works the mines for the rich folks until he’s got enough cash to blow in Virginia City. Then, he disappears for a while and comes back broke to earn some more.”
David looked at Lila with a shrug. “At four dollars a day, I can afford to play as hard as I work.”
“Four dollars a day!” she echoed. “I wonder what they are making in California then.”
“California?” Val snorted. “California’s old news. All the miners are leaving, coming here for the silver.”
“Really?” She sounded surprised. “There is that much silver here?”
"Much more than we all believed possible," Morgan said.
David’s grin was tight, as if stretched over clenched teeth before he took a deep breath and turned to Lila. “I ought to take you down into the mines and show you. The stuff is practically pouring out of the walls.”
“I would love to see that.” Her smile beamed with excitement.
“Absolutely not,” Morgan cut in with a vigorous shake of his head. “The mines are no place for a woman. It’s dark and dangerous and there are a hundred ways to die down there. Men die all the time.”
“Is that why you’re giving it up?” Lila asked.
“Yeah, Morgan,” Val echoed dryly. “Is it the danger or just the hard work you don’t like?”
Morgan stared hard at his brother. The words stung. Val knew damn well that he never balked at danger or hard work. It was Val’s own manufactured sense of betrayal that was coming out in those words and Morgan determined that, but for Lila, the evening’s company had grown sour. He said nothing to Val, but stood and looked down to address her.
“Miss Cameron, it was a pleasure sharing a meal with you. Please excuse me.”
She nodded, and he left the stables without a backward glance.
Lila watched Morgan leave. When he was gone, David rolled his eyes, and Val scowled as he crossed his arms over his chest. She didn’t stay long afterward. The conversations were mostly about mining and the wealth flourishing in the hills, but her mind drifted to the thick hostility she sensed between the men. There was tension and distance between the brothers, and an intense seriousness about Morgan. She surmised that David and Val were friends, rather than the friendship flowing easily and equally among the three of them. The longer she sat, the more her limbs ached with exhaustion. When she gathered the plates and left the barn she was nearly asleep on her feet.
Halfway between the stables and the house, a horse and rider approached. It was Morgan, and he was fully dressed in a clean shirt, vest and a light coat. His saddle was cluttered with bundles and satchels as if he was planning to be away for some time. A black hat rested on his head and his eyes beneath it shone into the night as he nodded in greeting.
“You’re leaving?” she asked, her eyes wide.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve got a ranch that I’ve had my eye on for some time. I’m hoping by this time tomorrow it’ll be mine.”
“Oh.” She looked around, searching for words. She and her father would be back on the coach the next day. If Morgan was leaving she would never see him again. For some strange reason the thought unsettled her. “Well, I should take this last opportunity to apologize to you then.”
“For my rude behavior earlier when we met. I was…shaken and…”
Morgan smiled and shook his head softly. “You don’t have to explain. Think nothing of it. You were right. I’ve spent so much time underground that I’d forgotten what it was like to be in the presence of a beautiful woman.” He looked her up and down again. “Or to have one in my arms. For however brief it was, it was worth it.”
Lila swallowed and held the tray against the sudden tingling in the tips of her breasts. His eyes met hers and peered so long that she finally had to look down at the ground. She felt a tug deep in her belly, a sudden loss of voice and words, and an uneasy dryness in her throat. She gathered her wits and smiled at him.
“So, this is farewell then,” she said.
He nodded. “Take care.”
With a crisp nod of his hat, he kicked the horse’s flanks and rode into the darkness, leaving Lila to wonder at how quickly she had gone from insulting the man to barely being able to form a sentence in his presence.
Firelight flicked across the stone walls of the cave as the two men drowned their sorrows in a bottle of whiskey. The mood was somber, their voices quiet. They knew they shouldn’t have built a fire, but they were out of food and had to cook up the jackrabbit they’d shot. A weathered, greasy-haired man grunted in frustration as he picked his teeth with the gnawed end of a bone.
“I’m still hungry,” he said.
“Too damn bad,” the other answered. “Unless you want to go hunting for coyotes just suck it up and stop grumbling.”
“Shut up, Jared. You ain’t running this show.”
“Ain’t nobody runnin’ this goddamn show, Bobby!” Jared returned. “We got no food, nothing but cheap rotgut to drink. Slick and my brother are lying dead on some dirt road and we’re no richer for it. If I ever find out who that bastard was on the hill with the shotgun, I’ll gut him myself.”
A voice spoke from the mouth of the cave. “You wouldn’t even know where to start.” Both men turned to find the silhouette of a man and they drew their pistols, but the voice warned them. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. You’re drunk and I’m quicker.”
Jared squinted until the shadow emerged into the light. He relaxed and put his gun away.
“Oh, it’s you, Mack” Jared said, the scar running through his upper lip beginning to twitch. “Where the hell have you been? We could have used you out there today. This entire loot was your idea and you didn’t even show. The goddamn money bags got away.”
“What the hell were you idiots doing attacking the four p.m. coach?”
“Isn’t that what you’re paying us for?” Jared snapped.
“Not today, you useless sack of horseshit! Leonard Stacy arrives on the four p.m. coach on the fifth, not the first! You didn’t attack anybody but a bunch of women and a few old men.”
Jared’s gray eyes lit with anger. “The fifth? I could have sworn you said the first.”
“That’s because you’re drunk half the time and you only hear what you want the other half. Do you think a railroad tycoon’s stage coach would be traveling without a guard of mercenaries, especially if he was carting ten thousand dollars? That should have been your first clue that you were attacking the wrong transport. I swear to God, sometimes I wonder why I ever dragged your shit-for-brains hide into this!”
“You mean today was for nothing?”
“Not for nothing. You’ve gone and elevated your wanted status from robbers to murderers.
“They fired on us first!”
“Of course they did! What did you expect? Three robberies in six weeks!” Mack shook his head, exasperated.
“We needed the practice before the big score,” Jared defended with a shrug, before he spit a wad of tobacco juice onto a nearby rock.
“We lost Slick and Ned,” Bobby said sadly.
“We’ll get Stacy on the fifth,” Jared resolved. “For Ned and Slick.”
“No, you won’t,” Mack growled. “First off, there are only two of you now. Second, the whole damn county is likely to be on the watch for you now that you’ve murdered two stage coach employees, and don’t be surprised if the Overland Stage puts a price on your heads. Forget Stacy. In fact, you two better leave town. Go to Placerville. If we get another opportunity at Stacy I’ll send for you.”
“I ain’t going nowhere ‘til I kill the bastard who shot my brother,” Jared said, fingering the black ring that now rested on his little finger.
“No, you’re going to forget about your brother and leave tonight!”
Jared shot to his feet and went toe-to-toe with Mack. “Be careful,” he hissed. “I’m about through doing your dirty work for a few scraps of coin. The only reason I signed onto this was for the five grand you promised me once Stacy’s coach was robbed. Now, you’re telling me that it ain’t gonna happen? I see no reason to take orders from you anymore. I’m done starving on the carcasses of scrawny desert rabbits while you feast like a king.”
“I don’t pay for screw ups,” Mack growled. “You want more? Do the job right! I didn’t hire you to go killing people, but now you and I are linked. So you
do as I say or I’ll splatter your brains around this cave right now.”
“I ain’t too drunk to take you on,” he warned.
“Just try it, Jared.”
The two stood panting at each other until Jared finally backed away. The man may grate him and prick his temper until it flared, but he knew he was too drunk to shoot straight. He would let it go for now, but he had no intention of sitting idle in California while his brother’s killer was in Virginia City.
“I want you guys gone tonight,” Mack ordered as he pulled a purse from his inside coat pocket. He tossed it to Jared. “That ought to cover you to Placerville and tie you over ‘til I need you again. I don’t want to see hide nor hair of either of you until then.”
He left the cave, and Jared glared after him. Soon, Bobby rose and stretched his back before grabbing his saddle and heading toward his horse. Jared’s arm shot out and stopped him.
“What the hell are you doing?” Jared asked, and Bobby gave him a confused look.
“He just said…”
“We ain’t going nowhere.”
Dawn pearled in a cloudless sky as Morgan felt the warm snort of a horse’s muzzle move over his face. He opened his eyes and reached up to stroke the sides of the mare’s snout. She nuzzled his cheek in response, and he finally sat up and stretched his back. The desert floor was soft and sandy. The night temperatures had been ideal. Nothing should have prevented a good night’s rest, but he spent most of it staring up at the stars replaying the most eventful day he had in a while.
Foremost on his mind was Val. He felt a strange war between wanting to throttle him for his selfishness and wanting to comfort and ease his hurt. He knew his brother well, so it was aggravating him that he couldn’t understand why Val refused to be happy for him. David, too, had suddenly become an unexpected thorn in his side. He went from simply tolerating the man to outright despising him, and he suspected why.
Each time he thought of her, he sighed. He had only known her for a few hours and barely spoken with her, but she was a permanent fixture in his thoughts. Her thick hair, soft and glossy, and the memory of it falling all over her shoulders made his fingers itch to run through it. Full lips that curled into a sweet smile begged for kissing. He wanted to see those eyes, rich with character and class, pinned on him invitingly like they had been on David. His jaw clenched each time he replayed the man’s eyes roving over her figure. It was hypocritical, he knew, for he had done the same thing more than once, but David had been so perverse in his gaze that it was disrespectful.
He shook himself further awake and thrust the thoughts into the air on a heavy breath. Nothing was going to get any better by stewing over it. He mounted his horse and cantered toward the only positive thing he had going for him. When the valley view fell below him his chest tightened in that familiar homecoming he felt each time he stood looking down on it. The rising sun had not yet reached it and the entire panorama sighed in the shade. Horses and cattle grazed, and chimney smoke whorled through the treetops.
By the time he made it down into the green and stopped at the lake for a drink, golden sunlight spilled across the area giving it a holy sheen. He rode farther until trees covered the sky from view and the mountain base began to rise. He found the river and followed it south until it flowed under the crossed beams of a wooden fence. There, he stopped and looked upon the expanse of land he craved. The acreage was vast, he estimated somewhere near three hundred, and half of it was forested. The other half opened into a wide meadow, thick with rising green grass and waking wildflowers. The river meandered randomly through the space before dipping beneath another fence to feed another field.
The house sat back closer to the mountain but was sheltered in the middle ground, right where the land faded from the tree line and rolled out into the open. It was two stories and made of logs and shakes. A shallow porch outlined the front of the house and rose gardens flourished at its flanks. Not far behind the main house was a barn attached to a tiny pasture where half a dozen horses snipped at the grass sparkling with morning dew. Chickens clucked and roosters crowed from somewhere behind the house, hidden from his view.
Morgan knew it was early yet, so he walked along the wooden fence and waited beneath the arched metal gateway until the occupants of the house made their appearance. Above his head hung the brand for which the ranch was named. The Diamond Spur. A dozen cattle grazed nearby, each one’s rump bearing the same mark.
Before long, a young girl emerged looking no more than ten years old. She held an empty pail in her hands and started toward the barn. When she spied Morgan and his horse near the locked gate she shrieked and ran inside, shouting for her pa. The man appeared in the doorway, clutching a long-barreled rifle to his shoulder and aimed it right at Morgan.
“State your business!” he called. Morgan raised his hands to show that he was no threat.
“My name is Morgan Kelly. I’ve come to talk to you about purchasing your property.”
The man flinched at that and stepped forward, still leveling the rifle at him. “You a gentile?”
“Why don’t you just cower in the shadows and wait ‘til we clear out like the rest of you placer-washing vultures?”
Morgan tensed. “I never did like talking to the wrong end of a gun, if you don’t mind.” When the man made no move to lower his weapon, Morgan continued. “I’m not a threat to you, man. If I had wanted to kill you, I would have taken the advantage while you slept. It’s land I’m after, not blood.”
“I stopped trusting you gold-diggers when you lot started attacking our supply wagons years ago.”
“Well, in the two years I’ve been here I’ve never attacked anything. Everything I have I've earned and paid for.” He sighed impatiently. “I’m perfectly willing to wait until you move on out back to Salt Lake, but I’d just as soon pay you out right to own it free and clear and not have to fight anyone over it.”
The man wore a thick hat. The entire bottom half of his face was obscured by a bushy beard that hung down to his breast. With his head tilted to sight down the barrel of the gun his face was completely unreadable. Finally, after a long pause, he lowered the weapon, and Morgan took his first easy breath. The man strode out to meet him and as Morgan rounded the gate and stepped foot onto his future property, the two shook hands.
“My name is Ephraim,” he said.
“As you said,” he inserted gruffly before resting a fist on his hip. “Well, come on in then and have some coffee.”
The interior was simple and unassuming. A fire rippled in the hearth and two rocking chairs sat before it. One was empty but the other carried a young woman cradling an infant. Her head was covered in a white cap, and she hummed softly to the swaddled baby as he suckled for his morning feed. Morgan looked awkwardly away, and his gaze fell upon the shimmering and curious eyes of two young girls peering around from the top of the stairs. He nodded, and smiled before following their father to a wooden table where he took a seat.
Ephraim retrieved a coffee tin from the cast iron stove and poured a steaming cup for Morgan and then one for himself.
“I don’t usually drink coffee,” he began as he took a seat across from Morgan, “but I woke up this morning with an itch in my breast. I had a dream last night that something big was going to happen today and I figured I better be awake for it.” Morgan nodded respectfully and thanked him for his cup.
“You didn’t seem surprised when I offered to buy your place,” Morgan said. “Does that mean that Young really has called you back to Salt Lake as I heard?”
Ephraim nodded as his lips puckered against the scald of his swallow. “And we’ll go,” he said matter-of-factly. “But it will make our hearts sore to leave our home. We may yet return, though. Who knows?”
“Well, I owe you complete honesty in exchange for your trust,” Morgan said. “I aim to own this place and I don’t intend to sell it back to you or to anyone else. Also, I don’t believe Utah will have sway over this region much longer. People here are already talking about making a claim for statehood. This ranch may soon be part of the state of Nevada, and you’ll have to reconcile to our laws.”
Ephraim nodded sadly. “I appreciate you wanting to offer something for it in any case. It is nice to see that someone in this realm can see the value of the work we’ve done here.”
“You have made it a fine homestead,” he agreed. “I noticed you have a dozen cattle roaming.”
“We have more than that. We’ve about forty, though most are up in the mountains.” Ephraim recognized the surprise on Morgan’s face. “We let them roam and forage freely. They have our brand and we trust our Mormon neighbors to be honest. Now that we’re all leaving, though…”
“Were you planning to drive them to Salt Lake with you?”
“We had hoped that with all of us in the caravan there might be enough young men to help herd them east, yes.”
“Well, I am prepared to offer a price for your homestead and your cattle if you’re willing to hear it.”