Authors: Elaine Barbieri
The sun was hot and steady as the morning hours advanced. The terrain was flat as they traveled toward the distant mountains, and an inexplicable tension began assuming control of Lacey’s senses.
Traces of her vexation still remaining, Lacey looked at Scully, who rode at her right. She had been upset at his attitude in the restaurant when Doc Mayberry and Reverend Sykes introduced themselves earlier, but she had gotten truly angry when he explained the reasoning behind his behavior. The thought that he might’ve believed for a moment that anyone could influence her against him had stunned her. He was her lifeline to a past she hoped to reclaim, her stability in the present and a stalwart presence as she looked toward an uncertain future. She considered the bond between them to be impervious to assault of any kind. The thought that Scully possibly did not feel the same had shaken her.
Those thoughts had deluged her as she had dressed in the riding clothes he had brought. When she opened the door, she had found him waiting, his dark suit exchanged for more common western wear. It had not escaped her notice that the ordinary shirt and trousers he wore somehow emphasized his superior height and breadth of shoulder, which set him apart from the average fellow on the street, or that the brim of the weathered hat he wore pulled down low on his forehead added a new element of determination to the strength of his compelling features. She had frowned at her certainty that the gun belt he wore strapped around his hips was not for adornment.
Scully did not smile when they reached the street and approached the two mounts waiting for them at the rail. He said, “You do remember how to ride astride, don’t you? We don’t have sidesaddles in Weaver, and the trails are a bit rough for a buggy.”
She had responded by mounting up in a fluid movement that had surprised even herself—a prideful display for which she now silently suffered stiff, aching muscles.
Her eyes straight forward, Lacey heard Scully say, “It’s getting hot. You have water in your canteen if you’re thirsty.”
Lacey turned toward him, a tart response on her lips, only to have it fade at first contact with Scully’s concerned gaze. In a flash of insight, it was suddenly clear to her that both she and Scully had gotten angry for the same reason—because, in one way or another, the bond between them had been questioned. She wondered why she hadn’t realized that before, then silently thanked the Lord for relieving her distress by imparting a bit of wisdom that had escaped her.
Lacey responded, “I’m not thirsty, but I would like to know where we’re going, Scully.”
The shadows in Scully’s eyes darkened with uncertainty as he replied, “Surely you realize where we’re going by now.”
A cold chill raced down Lacey’s spine at his response. Her mounting tension exploded into breathlessness as she turned to scrutinize the terrain more closely.
Endless wilderness…a sunbaked trail…the mountains in the distance drawing ever closer…
Lacey gasped, “I-I’m not ready to go there yet!”
“Your grandfather’s buried there.”
“No, I don’t want to go.”
Suddenly trembling, Lacey shook her head. She couldn’t go back to the site of her nightmares, not even to see her grandpa’s final resting place. Not yet.
“Lacey, are you all right?”
The terrifying shadows began shifting in Lacey’s mind.
The fire was all around her. Her skin was burning. She couldn’t breathe. She tried to call for help.
She was afraid…afraid…
Lacey did not feel the strong arm that encircled her waist the moment before Scully swept her from her saddle and settled her on his horse in front of him. She was not aware of the sob that escaped her throat when his embrace closed around her. She felt his breath against her hair and heard Scully whisper, “It’s all right, Lacey. It’s over…in the past. You don’t have to be frightened anymore. I’ll take care of you.”
Shuddering, Lacey burrowed closer against him. She knew it was true. She was safe with Scully. She’d always be safe with him.
Scully filled his canteen at the stream, then looked back at Lacey. She was sitting in the patch of shade where he had left her. Her skin was ashen, her eyes red-rimmed. Strands of pale hair hung loose at her hairline and trailed down the back of her neck, but she was unaware of her dishevelment as she leaned back and closed her eyes.
Crouched beside Lacey moments later, Scully untied the bandanna from around his neck and wetted it, then ran the damp cloth across Lacey’s forehead.
Lacey opened her eyes, then looked away as she said, “I’m sorry, Scully. I don’t know what happened to me. It was really thoughtful of you to think of taking me to see my grandfather’s grave. I should want to see it, but somehow…”
“It was my fault.” Scully’s sober gaze met hers. “I did a lot of talking about it being too soon for you to do things, then I pushed you into something you weren’t ready to face.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“I should’ve realized how you’d feel.”
“Scully, please…” Lacey gripped Scully’s hand and held it tight. It was big and surprisingly callused, but she felt only its warmth as she rasped, “How could you realize how I’d feel if I didn’t realize it myself? Besides, I haven’t been completely honest with you. I wanted you to think of me as an adult ready to assume charge of her life, not as a frightened child still plagued by nightmares.”
“Nightmares? What kind of nightmares?”
“Of that day…only they’re all mixed up and unclear. They’ve been more frequent lately.” A chill shook Lacey as she continued, “The heat and the fire are so vivid, but shadows surround everything else. The shadows move, Scully. They twist and turn. They advance toward Grandpa while we’re outside the burning cabin, then they run away. And all the while, Grandpa is dying. He’s trying to talk to me, but his voice is fading. I strain to hear him, but he can’t talk any louder. He puts the Bible in my hand, and I hold it tight. It burns my skin, but I clutch it tighter and tighter, refusing to let it go, even when the shadows return and try to take it away from me. The shadows are suddenly chasing me. I run faster and faster, but they keep getting closer and closer. Suddenly I’m back at the fire again, and there’s nowhere else to run but back into the flames.”
“That’s enough.” Scully’s voice was sharp. He clutched her close to halt her shuddering. “You don’t have to tell me any more.”
“There’s no more to tell. I don’t know how it all ends. It’s all…shadows.”
Scully stroked Lacey’s fair hair as he held her in his comforting embrace. When he moved her away from him at last, he whispered, “You don’t have to be afraid of the shadows anymore, Lacey. That’s what I’m here for…to chase the shadows away.” He smiled and wiped the dampness from her cheeks with his palms, “That’s why your grandpa sent you to me, and there’s no way I’d let that old man down.”
“We share that, don’t we, Scully?” Lacey’s small smile was shaky. “We both loved him.”
“Yeah…we share that.”
“And he loved us both.”
Scully appeared to consider Lacey’s statement for a moment before he responded, “Yes, I suppose he did.”
“He would never think you aren’t
“I’m not moving from the Gold Nugget.”
Scully looked down into Lacey’s resolute expression. He would pursue that argument another time.
It was happening again.
Barret Gould stood behind the carved mahogany desk in his impressive office, his expression tight as he faced his two hirelings. Blackie Oaks had been an itinerant wrangler who couldn’t hold a job and Larry Hayes had been a waster too lazy to labor honestly to support himself when he’d run across them shortly after arriving in Weaver years earlier. He had used their services openly whenever their meager talents served his purposes as Weaver’s best and only attorney, and as one of its best-respected citizens. His “generosity” in giving the two “good, honest work to do” had been commended by many. What Weaver’s residents didn’t know, however, was that he had also used Larry and Blackie’s services covertly when opportunities to advance himself financially beyond the confines of the law were presented.
In both situations, however, his contempt for the limited mentalities of the two men was boundless.
Barret struggled to control his ire. He had been raised in San Francisco, the only child of wealthy parents. He had made good use of his pleasing appearance—thick brown hair, deceivingly warm brown eyes and even, patrician features—from an early age, and had employed it to great advantage when attending the best schools. Scholastically and socially successful, he had graduated as a lawyer with a great future in store while enjoying a clandestine lifestyle that went unsuspected.
But that was before his father was found to have participated in illegal activities and the family wealth was confiscated. That was also before his father was sent to prison a broken man and his mother took whatever family funds could be salvaged and ran off with her lover.
When he’d discovered he was also being investigated for participation in his father’s illegal affairs and the same fate might follow for him, he made a fast escape. He had chosen the vast, wild interior of the country as the best place for him to hide, yet Weaver, Arizona, had been as far as he had been willing to run.
Barret would never forget his disgust when he arrived in the small, unimpressive town wearing hand-tailored clothes and a deceptive smile. He had since used his practiced facade to become a valued member of the community while silently despising Weaver for its ignorance, for its location in the middle of nowhere and for its lack of proximity to any city of reasonable refinement. He had sworn that he’d find a way to restore himself to the civilized world before his youth was spent.
Eleven years had passed since then, eleven years of silent frustration made bearable only by the sum accumulating too slowly in his name to have made the lost time worthwhile.
Barret struggled to suppress his disdain at Blackie’s undiscerning observances as he said, “You’re telling me Scully and Lacey Stewart rode out into the wilderness with no apparent destination in mind, then turned around and came right back to Weaver. That doesn’t make any sense. Lacey has waited more than half her lifetime to claim her grandfather’s strike. There’s only one place she’d want to go if she went out riding.”
Larry, the smaller of the two men, interjected, “Scully and the lady didn’t come right back. They stopped at a stream for a while to cool off.”
Barret glared with impatience. “‘The lady…?’ That ‘lady’ you’re talking about is Lacey Stewart, you know…the same Lacey Stewart who was a child at her grandfather’s cabin ten years ago. The same Lacey Stewart who could’ve identified you and Blackie as the men who shot her grandfather.”
“Yeah, but she’s all growed up and she’s a lady now. And she didn’t blink an eye when she saw me and Blackie on the street a few days ago.”
“She saw you?”
“Yeah, and she didn’t give us a second look.”
Barret took a firm hold on his forbearance. “So you’re telling me, that’s it…they just stopped at a stream to cool off? They didn’t get as much as halfway toward the old man’s cabin?”
“They did a little cuddling while they were at the stream, is all.”
“Yeah, it looked to me like the lady was crying for some reason, and Scully was trying to comfort her.”
“They didn’t…you know…?”
“No, they didn’t even come close. They just stayed for a while until the lady got herself back together, and then they headed back.”
“Was it Scully’s idea to turn back, or was it the woman’s?”
The two men exchanged glances before Blackie replied, “I’d say it was the lady’s. She didn’t want to go on.”
Barret nodded. She didn’t want to look anxious. The girl was smarter than he thought.
He said, “All right, that’s all I need to know for now. Get out, and remember what I said. Don’t let that ‘lady’ out of your sight.”
Waiting until both men had left his office and closed the door behind them, Barret sat down at his desk and reached into his drawer for the small sack that was never far from his reach. He withdrew the gold nugget from inside the sack and held it tight in his hand as he had many times before. He recalled the moment when Charlie Pratt had walked into his office late that first day. Short, wiry, unkempt, Charlie had been indistinguishable from any other prospector he had ever seen, but when the old man smiled and put the nugget down on the desk in front of him, Barret knew his moment had come.
A man of few words, Charlie told him he’d struck it rich, that he wanted to register his claim in his own name and that of his granddaughter, and he wanted to do it “real legal like, so there’d be no problem afterward.” Charlie left the nugget behind for a “retainer” without disclosing the location of the claim, and said he’d return to sign whatever papers were necessary in a couple of days.
Barret’s heart pounded in vivid recall. He had immediately set Blackie and Larry on the old man’s trail. His plan had been simple. Charlie had kept his strike a secret. He had been cautious enough not to tell anyone but Barret about it. Blackie and Larry would follow the old man, find his claim and report the location back to him so he could record it in his own name before the old man returned—“real legal like, so there’d be no problem afterward.”
A familiar knot of frustration twisted tight inside Barret as memory returned the details of the debacle that followed.
Charlie also had been smarter than he thought. Charlie had evidently spotted Blackie and Larry following him and had led them on a circuitous trail obviously meant to confuse them before reaching his cabin in darkness. He had then tricked them into thinking he had gone to his bed, only to appear unexpectedly behind them with a gun, demanding to know what they were after.
According to Blackie, the situation deteriorated into chaos from that point, ending up with Charlie being shot and with Blackie and Larry determined to hide their crime by throwing Charlie’s body into the cabin and setting the structure afire.