Enjoy the first chapter of A Will of Her Own
Bloomfield, Connecticut, 1861
He would remember that day for the rest of his life. He could still hear the sounds of his mother’s cries when she received the news that her older sister, his Aunt Sally, had hung herself. Though he had only been nine years old at the time, he had been able to piece together the bits of conversation that went on around him.
Sally had married Josiah Rutledge three years prior. Though no one in the family had met him, she’d sent glowing letters home from New Hampshire, where they resided, expounding his many attributes. She’d been completely enamored by him and had professed her happiness. Unbeknownst to her, Josiah was a con man, living under an assumed name. The day he absconded with all of her worldly possessions, she walked to the barn, climbed into the hayloft with a rope, and leapt from the rafter, the sisal noose cutting off her airway. She dangled for three days before Hank Stone found her, when he’d stopped by to deliver a letter.
The local sheriff investigated and determined that it was a suicide. There was no note to be found, just a faded photograph taken on their wedding day. With no trace of her husband, the authorities concluded rightly so, that he had left and she had taken her life out of despair. A short note and the photograph were sent to her sister, and it wasn’t long before the names Sally and Josiah Rutledge faded from the townspeople’s memories.
They weren’t forgotten, however, by a young boy who watched his mother grieve for ten years before succumbing to pneumonia. He vowed on her deathbed that he would track down the man who had brought such misery to their lives and bring him to justice, even if it took his last breath.
Watching as the final shovelful of earth was placed on his mother’s grave, he mounted his horse and headed north, a faded photograph tucked in his pocket.
“Marshal Tanner, I demand that something be done!”
“What is it now, Westerbrook?” Try as he might, Jack could not keep the disdain he felt for the hotel owner out of his tone.
“There has been another break-in!” Lawrence Westerbrook stood in front of the marshal’s desk in the jail house, his face bright red, pumping his fist in the air. “I want to know what you are going to do about it!”
“Was anything stolen?”
“Not this time but that’s not the point! Someone has broken into the hotel three times in the past month! You’re the marshal; do your job!”
Gritting his teeth, Jack attempted to rein in his temper. He despised this man with every fiber in his being, a feeling that intensified every time he remembered Lawrence had once vied for his wife’s affections. Luckily, Landry had never been interested in the man, having only accompanied him to an occasional town dance, well before Jack had shown any interest in her. Happily married now for more than three years, he had no cause to worry, but hearing the hotel owner’s name was enough to set his nerves on edge. A face to face confrontation was enough to make him contemplate murder.
“I’ve heard talk around town that mine is not the only establishment that has been breached of late. If this position is too much for you to handle….” Lawrence smirked as his not-so-veiled threat hung in the air.
Getting up from behind his desk, Jack strode over, stopping mere inches from the man. “If you have something to say, Westerbrook, then say it. If not, go back to the hotel and let me do my job!”
Doubt crossed Lawrence’s face as he realized that he may have pushed the marshal too far. Knowing from past experience how hard a punch the younger man threw, he muttered under his breath and scurried out of the door. Jack watched him go, shaking his head and wondering for the umpteenth time how a man like that could run a successful business.
“Good riddance!” Jack muttered under his breath. Leaving the door to the office open to let in the late morning sunshine, he walked back to his desk and turned his attention to the problem at hand. Westerbrook had been right about one thing; there had been several reports made over the past two months about mysterious break-ins. Although crime wasn’t unheard of in Hidden Springs, it was rare for it to go unsolved for long.
Settling back into his chair, Jack pulled a sheaf of papers from his drawer and began reading through the reports, starting with the oldest complaint. A little less than eight weeks earlier, Fred Cooper had discovered the door to his storage room ajar. Though nothing had been damaged or stolen from the general store, Jack had thought it wise to document the incident. A week later, he was glad for his foresight, because a similar complaint was filed by Al Bennett, owner of the emporium. He too had found the door to his store open, and though nothing had been damaged, he did report that some food was missing.
Similar reports had started coming in from around town; doors or windows found open but nothing damaged. Jack flipped though the papers, noting that a few food items had disappeared, yet money and other valuables had not. Even at the hotel, the only thing reported missing was a blanket. In most of the cases, it appeared as if the intruder had only been looking for a place to sleep. His choice of businesses varied, from the general store, to the hotel, to the livery. It was looking more and more like a vagrant had decided to settle in town.
Though Jack’s gut told him that the guy was probably harmless, he knew the situation could not go on. As word spread, the townspeople had begun to grow uneasy, and while he seriously doubted that there was any danger, he knew that this person had to be stopped in order to restore peace. The problem was that there was no set pattern to when the troublemaker appeared. He would hit two days in a row and then go more than a week before breaking-in again.
Leaning back in his chair and propping his boots on the corner of his desk, Jack closed his eyes as he gave thought on the best way to proceed. There were several men in town that he could count on to help if he needed them in addition to the two deputy marshals who were now in his employ. He decided that stake-outs would be the best course of action; each man could watch a different building, alert for any suspicious activity. Hopefully one of them would catch the intruder before some vigilante decided to take the law into their own hands.
The town of Hidden Springs was located thirteen miles east of the Black Hills in central Arizona Territory, not far from the Verde Valley. Originally founded by Hiram Cooper in the 40’s, it had deteriorated into a ghost town when the vein of gold running through Cooper’s Mine had dried up. Twenty years later, Hiram’s grandson Fred, owner of the general store, had decided to take a chance and revive the town. The response to his offers of land had been overwhelming, and Hidden Springs had quickly grown into a booming community.
As the town expanded north to south, it had also branched west to east and new streets sprung up as businesses and residences alike were built. No longer a one- road town, Hidden Springs was a maze of alleys and avenues, interlocking and offering many secret niches to hide. The modest population had grown, and Jack no longer knew every resident on sight, although he tried his best to become familiar with them all.
What once had been a horse trail carving a path between worn-out buildings, Main Street had become a bustling thoroughfare, teeming with activity. Wagons lumbered along, their wheels churning ruts into the dusty ground; the scent of leather, sweat, and manure intermingling as the sound of creaking leather, jangling harnesses, and nickering horses added to the cacophony in the streets. The stage ran every day, its arrival heralded by the sound of thundering hoofs as it was pulled through town by a snorting team of six, before coming to rest in front of the depot.
Businesses large and small thrived, and most of the townspeople felt that they were not just neighbors; they were family. They depended on one another, sharing triumphs and disappointments, joys and sorrows. What happened in town affected them all, and Jack would not let any criminal activity go unpunished. He studied the reports again, looking for any bit of information that could give him a clue as to the person’s identity. Engrossed as he was by the papers before him, he was instantly aware of the man who entered the office.
“Morning. Are you the sheriff?” the man asked, his hat pulled low over his brow, shadowing his eyes.
“Marshal,” Jack clarified, standing and resting his right hand on the butt of his gun. Something about the stranger put him on edge and he wasn’t taking any chances. “Help you with something?”
“Name’s Will Buchanon. I’m looking for someone; someone who hurt my family. I’ve tracked him to Hidden Springs and I don’t intend on leaving here without him. Just thought I should make you aware.”
“That so? Well, Will Buchanon, I don’t take to people coming into my town and making threats, so I think it would be best if you just went back to wherever you came from.” Jack was on full alert, ready to draw his gun at the slightest provocation. The stranger who stood before him looked like he could handle himself in an altercation, and though being the marshal meant that sometimes bloodshed was warranted, it wasn’t something that he relished.
Taking a deep breath, Will started again. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to make it sound like a threat. I work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency…well, I used to. I’ve been tracking this man for twelve years, and each time I get what seems to be a good lead, it turns into a dead end. I finally received some solid information; information that led me here. I’m not seeking vengeance; merely justice. When I find him, I’ll return him to New Hampshire to face the appropriate charges.”
Sensing that the man was telling the truth, Jack relaxed a bit. He indicated for Will to take a seat in the chair facing his desk, then sat back down in his own. Studying the man for a moment, he noted how similar they were in coloring and build; they could almost be brothers. The dark hair was the same, though Jack’s eyes were gray to Will’s blue. “So tell me, who is this man?”
“I don’t know.”
Raising an eyebrow, Jack looked over with a perplexed expression on his face. “You’ve been tracking him for twelve years and you don’t know his name? How is that possible? I thought that you said that he hurt your family.”
“I know how it sounds, believe me I do. Maybe it’s best if I start from the beginning.”
“Why don’t you do that,” Jack agreed, scrutinizing the man as he began his tale, noting the clarity and conciseness of his words.
Removing his hat and balancing it on his knee, Will took a deep breath, then began to speak. He described his aunt’s marriage to the man who would ultimately betray her and by his actions, cause her death. He spoke of the years of watching his mother grieve until she succumbed to her illness, and his vow on her deathbed to bring the man to justice. As he described his journey to New Hampshire, he pulled the photograph from his pocket and handed it to Jack.
“Not really much to see, is there?” the marshal remarked, looking closely at the picture.
“I know it’s not much to go on,” Will agreed. The print was more than twenty-five years old; faded and creased, until the faces were a blur. A faint outline could be seen of a couple standing side by side, the man slightly taller than his bride.
Handing the photo back, Jack asked, “What makes you think this man is in Hidden Springs?”
“A locket.” Will paused for a moment, and when there was no response, he continued. “My grandmother had given both of her daughters, my mother and Aunt Sally, matching lockets. They were engraved with the family crest and their initials. I have my mother’s in my possession. The sheriff never found Aunt Sally’s; her bastard of a husband had taken everything she owned. Three months ago in Kansas City, I came across the locket in a mercantile. Before you ask, yes, I’m sure it’s the same one. It’s identical to my mother’s, but with my aunt’s initials.
Anyway, it took some ‘persuading’ but I finally managed to get information out of the store owner as to the seller. It took another three weeks for me to track him down to a gambling hall in Wichita. Unfortunately, I arrived a few minutes too late. He’d been called out on a bluff and was a bit too slow on the draw. I managed to question him before he died but all he could tell me was that he bought the locket from a man who lived in Hidden Springs.”
Settling back in his chair, Jack took a moment to think, resting his steepled fingers against his lips. “You realize that’s not much to go on. How do you know that this man was even telling the truth?”
“What reason would he have to lie? He was dying; he had nothing to gain by steering me wrong.”
“I don’t know. The whole thing sounds kind of flimsy. Did you get a description of this mystery man?”
“No,” Will answered dejectedly. “I was hoping to do some snooping around, maybe ask a few questions here and there. I’m not ready to give up!”
Reaching a decision, Jack stood and pushed his chair back. “Well, I might as well show you around town. You understand, of course, that I won’t condone any illegal activity. If you think that you’ve found the man who stole your aunt’s belongings, I expect you to report him to me or one of my deputies, and let us handle it. Any vigilante nonsense and you’ll be in the cell beside him. Do I make myself clear?”
“Absolutely,” Will agreed, rising to meet the marshal as he stepped around the desk. The two men shook hands, each impressed by the other’s grip. Placing his hat back atop his head, he followed Jack out onto the boardwalk. Blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted to the bright sunshine, he looked around at the people passing by. Could one of them be the man whom he sought?
Listening as Jack described the various businesses that they passed as well as the proprietors, he imagined for the hundredth time what he would do when he finally came face to face with the bastard who had stolen the lives of those he loved the most. He had never considered himself a vengeful man but when it came to Josiah Rutledge, or whatever the fiend was calling himself these days, Will was only too happy to envision the worst possible punishment. Hanging would be too good for the man as far as he was concerned. Drawn and quartered, maybe. Slathered in honey and tied to an anthill in the hot sun, definitely.
They started the tour of the town at the livery, then worked their way back up the street, passing the feed store, mercantile, and hotel. As they approached an empty building, Will saw the name ‘Lucky Strike Saloon’ painted on the window. “What happened here?” he asked, finding it odd that a saloon would go out of business in such a busy town.
“The owner died. He didn’t have any kinfolk that we’re aware of so the town council voted to put the building up for sale and donate the proceeds to the schoolhouse and the church.”
“Money from the sale of a saloon going to fund a school and a church? What kind of town is this?” Will asked bemusedly.
“The kind that looks after its own,” Jack answered tightly. He didn’t like this outsider questioning the town’s choices, and he was starting to doubt the man’s intentions.
Realizing that he had angered the marshal, Will apologized. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t criticizing. I’ve just been in a lot of towns over the years, and haven’t come across one quite as forward-thinking as this.” Watching as the muscles in Jack’s face relaxed, he gestured towards the saloon. “What can you tell me about him?”
“Harvey? I seriously doubt that he’s the person you’re looking for.”
“When did he die?”
“Almost two years ago in a typhoid epidemic.”
“Two years,” Will repeated, shaking his head. “No, that couldn’t be him then. That fellow in Kansas City bought the locket in the last six months, or so he told the store keeper.” Falling silent he continued walking, passing the bank and a men’s haberdashery. Reaching the end of the street, he started to cross over but Jack called to him.
“Come meet my wife,” he invited, walking up the steps in front of a dress shop. With Will following behind, he crossed the porch and pushed open the front door. “Landry girl, where are you?” Jack called out. Crossing what appeared to be a parlor, he disappeared through an opened door in the back.
Left alone, Will took a look at his surroundings. Flocked wallpaper of pale green with a cream-colored fleur-de-lis pattern lined the walls. Sunshine poured in from the bay window, its light dancing off of the colorful fabrics that were displayed on shelves around the room. Ribbon and lace dangled from spools mounted to the wall, and a tall cabinet filled with tiny, glass-front drawers held hundreds of colorful buttons. A dress form stood in one corner, its tapered shoulders, firm bust, and slim waist awaiting a newly sewn frock.
He stood stock still in the middle of the room, overwhelmed by the frippery. Devoted to tracking his prey, he’d never spent much time around the opposite sex. A tumble every now and then with a ‘working girl’ saw to his needs; beyond that, he’d never gave much thought to their wardrobe or other accoutrements.
Growing uncomfortable surrounded by all of the finery, and wondering where Jack had disappeared to, he looked around for a place to sit. Spotting a chair near the fireplace he moved toward it, his footsteps muffled by the ornate carpeting covering the floor. Just as he lowered his frame into the seat a stunning blonde woman entered the room, with Jack close behind.
“Hello,” she said, extending her hand and smiling broadly. “I’m Landry Tanner. Welcome to Hidden Springs.”
Will took her hand in his and gave it a light shake. He was aware of the marshal watching him closely and he didn’t blame the man; his wife was beautiful. Remembering that he still wore his hat, he hurriedly removed it from his head, rubbing his hand over the two-day growth of whiskers on his face. Clearing his throat and shuffling his feet like a schoolboy, he said, “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”
“Landry, please,” she laughed. “I’m not old enough to be called ‘ma’am’ yet.”
“Landry,” he repeated, catching Jack’s bemused expression out of the corner of his eye. “You have a very fine home.”
“Why, thank you…Will, is it?”
“Oh, I’m sorry! I forgot to introduce myself. Yes ma’am…uh, Landry ma’am. My name’s Will Buchanon.” Cursing silently, he wondered how to politely excuse himself before looking like an even bigger fool. “Marshal, I appreciate your time. I’d best be on my way.” He started towards the door but stopped when Landry spoke.
“Would you like to stay for dinner? There’s plenty, and we’d enjoy your company.”
The thought of a home-cooked meal almost made Will weep. He’d lived off of the trail for so long, eating in saloons or dining halls if he was lucky; eating by the campfire or not at all if he wasn’t. A loud growl emanated from his stomach, providing his answer.
“Come on,” Jack laughed, clapping him on the shoulder. “I’ll show you where you can wash up.” Walking through Landry’s shop, and then the kitchen, to the back door, they stepped into the yard behind the house. Will followed Jack to the pump, and they each took a turn washing their hands and splashing cool water on their faces. By the time they stepped back inside, Landry had the food on the table.
“Here, Will, have a seat,” Landry said. “Please, help yourself.”
“Thank you, Landry. It smells great!” He filled his plate with roasted chicken, potatoes, spring peas, and biscuits dripping with honey. His stomach growled again as he took a bite; the taste was heavenly.
“So Will, Jack tells me that you’re a Pinkerton detective.”
“Used to be,” Will corrected. “I left the agency three years ago. I had joined hoping that their resources would get me closer to finding …did Jack tell you why I’m here?”
Nodding, Landry answered, “He did. I’m terribly sorry for your loss. It doesn’t sound like you have much to go on.”
“I don’t; not really. At least not until a few months ago. Now I have the Hidden Springs lead. Believe me, if that man is here, I will find him!” He took a big swig of coffee like he was downing a shot of whiskey.
“I know that it isn’t my place to say this…,” Landry hesitated.
“Go on,” Will urged, presuming he knew what she was going to say.
“Well, I know that Jack would do the same thing that you are, if anything ever happened to me.” Looking at her husband, she saw him nodding in confirmation. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “What if you don’t find him? Are you willing to spend the rest of your life looking for him? It won’t bring your aunt or your mother back. Have you given any thought to what you’re missing out on? You could have a family of your own; a wife, children, a home; instead of chasing after a ghost.”
Will sat silently for so long that Landry was afraid she’d offended him. Just as she began to apologize, he spoke. “I understand what you’re saying. Believe me, I do. I’ve asked myself those same questions time and again. I know finding him won’t bring them back, or undo the heartache that my mother suffered. Many times I’ve thought about giving up, letting go of the past, settling down…but I can’t. Not until this ‘Josiah Rutledge’ or whatever his name is has paid for what he’s done to my family, and from what I’ve been told, countless others.
He is a con man, a cheat, a worthless son of a bitch who preys on people’s kind-heartedness and trust. He is a despicable human being and he must be stopped. Come hell or high water, I will stop him!” Will spoke softly, his voice full of conviction. His words carried a chilling quality; a promise that both Jack and Landry were certain he would deliver. “Please excuse my language, ma’am. I didn’t mean to get so worked up.”
Landry leaned over and placed her hand on his arm. “That’s alright. I understand. I hope that you find him.”
Nodding his head, Will excused himself and stood up, pushing his chair back. “Thank you again for the meal. I’d best not take up any more of your time.” He walked into the shop, picking up his hat from where he’d left it on the chair. “Can you recommend a place to stay in town? I’ve been riding hard for the past few weeks and don’t relish the idea of sleeping outdoors tonight.”
“There’s the hotel,” Jack answered with a grimace, “or the boardinghouse near the stage depot. If that’s full up, there’s a couple over on First Street who rents out rooms in their house.”
“I think that the hotel might be a little too rich for my blood. I’ll check out the boardinghouse and go from there.” He shook Jack’s hand, tipped his hat to Landry, and walked out of the door.
“Poor Will. I hope that he finds who he’s looking for soon. What a waste of a life, to spend every day so bent on vengeance,” Landry commented, heading back to the kitchen to clear the plates from the table.
“I don’t think that he sees it as vengeance; more like justice. And you were right. I’d spend the rest of my days hunting down anyone who hurt you,” Jack said, his gut tightening at the thought.
Recognizing the look on her husband’s face, she decided to lighten the mood. “It’s amazing how much he looks like you,” she said casually.
“How do you mean?” he asked, not surprised that she had seen the similarities but interested in her reply.
“Oh, you know, tall, dark, incredibly handsome. Although, I must say, I’m not sure which eye color I like better. Gray or blue?” she teased. Squealing loudly as he picked her up, she started laughing. “Okay, okay, I like gray more!”
“You’d better!” he growled, then kissed her thoroughly.
“There will never be anyone else for me,” she whispered when he finally tore his lips from hers.
“I feel the same, Landry girl. I feel the same.”
Will walked through town, his gaze scanning every face that he saw. He immediately disregarded anyone who appeared his age or younger. The bastard he was looking for was in his late forties but might appear even older depending on how the years had treated him. He took a second look at the man who was sweeping in front of the newspaper office but quickly dismissed the possibility.
He knew from the photograph that Rutledge, as he was wont to think of him, had been taller than his aunt, and she had been approximately the same height as this man. Deciding that there was no time like the present to start asking around, he stopped, watching the dust swirl as it was swept back onto the street.
“Hello, there. Can I help you?” the man asked, leaning his broom against the side of the building.
“I’m not really sure,” Will hesitated. “I don’t know quite where to begin.” Surprised by his admission, he tried to figure out what was different in this town than in any of the others. He’d never had any trouble asking questions before. Was it because he knew that he was close? That he might finally be able to put this part of his life behind him? “I’m looking for someone.”
“Oh? Who might that be? I know almost everyone in town, as well as those who reside on the outlying ranches. My name’s Rupert Caldwell; owner, editor, and printer of the Hidden Springs Herald.”
“Will Buchanon. Pleased to meet you. Actually, I don’t know his name. It’s kind of a long story.”
“Long stories are what I like best! Why don’t you come on inside out of the hot sun and tell me about it. Once I know all of the details, I can help you find a way to locate this mysterious man.” Holding the door open, Rupert motioned his guest into the office, where the scent of ink, oil, and paper was almost intoxicating. Motioning his guest to a chair, he settled into one of his own, leaned back, and waited with open anticipation.
Usually holding the details of his past close to the chest, Will was astonished to find himself opening up for the second time that day. As he had done with Jack earlier that morning, he showed Rupert the faded photograph, certain that the man would tell him that it was a lost cause. Instead, the newsman surprised him by asking to keep the picture so that he could study it in more detail.
Although reluctant to part with his only clue, Will granted his permission. There was something about this town that felt safe. The people whom he had met so far were welcoming, treating him as if he were an old friend, not a stranger. He’d been on his own for more than a decade, never allowing himself to get close to anyone because he knew that inevitably he would be moving on.
His thoughts turned to Landry Tanner’s questions; though he had skirted the issue, he did want a family, a home, someone to love who would love him back. Maybe this would be his last stop. Maybe it was time to give up this crazy quest for justice and start living his life. Surprisingly comfortable with the direction his thoughts were taking him, it took him a moment to realize that Rupert was staring at him.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. “I was thinking of something else.”
“So it appeared,” the newsman replied. “A good thought, I presume, judging by the look on your face.”
“Maybe,” Will conceded. “Something for me to consider at a later time. Speaking of time, I’ve taken up more than enough of yours. Thank you for listening to me, and I appreciate anything that you may be able to find out.”
“Of course, my boy, of course. It’s what we newsman like to do; digging around to find answers to the most mysterious of questions.”
“Please be careful,” Will urged. “This man is dangerous. I have no doubt that he would stop at nothing to keep his identity a secret.”
“Never fear; I’ve gone up against my share of dangerous men in the past. I have a trick or two up my sleeve.”
Hoping that his new friend would not get into any trouble on his account, Will bid farewell, promising to stop by the following day to answer any further questions. Stepping outside into the late afternoon sunlight, he realized that more than two hours had passed. Weariness crept through him as his long days on the road caught up to him. Debating on whether to stop off at the saloon which was conveniently located next to the newspaper office, or find a place to lay his head, his decision was made when he yawned loudly. Making his way past the doctor’s office, cabinet maker’s, and stage depot, he hoped that the boardinghouse would have a room available because he wasn’t sure that he could stay awake long enough to look for another place to sleep.
Luck was with him, and though it was not yet early evening, he settled into bed feeling more at peace than he had in years. Something about this town, and the people who lived here, felt familiar to him, although he had no idea why. Maybe, when this was all over, when he had gotten his justice, he would settle down in a town like this one. Maybe he would have that family after all.
Drifting off to sleep, he remembered that his saddlebag and pack were still at the livery. Telling himself that he should go collect them, he was snoring before the thought finished forming.
Copyright © 2013 - 2018 Kristine Raymond. All rights reserved.