Salvation in the Rancher's Arms

By: Kelly Boyce

Chapter One

Colorado Territory, 1876

Salvation Falls was like a hundred other towns Caleb Beckett had ridden into over the years, with its faded storefronts and hopeful name, likely conjured up by settlers who had great things in mind, only to be disappointed by the harsh realities of life.

People mixed and mingled on the streets and planked sidewalks as the buckboard he rode jostled over the ruts in the dirt road. A few stopped to glance up at him. He could feel the shift in the air the further into town he went. It was subtle at first, but soon grew to a deep murmur that buzzed like a hive of angry bees.

He guessed that could happen when a stranger arrived in town with a coffin loaded in the back of his buckboard.

Caleb’s eyes scanned the storefront signs. They were all the same. Mercantile, hardware, footwear, sundries and saloons. He knew from experience that down near the end of the road he’d find a livery and the butcher, probably a blacksmith or two. It never changed.

He’d spent time in a town just like this, and drifted into even more after leaving it. And if there was one thing he’d noticed, as he moved on from one to the next, it was the similarity of it all. People all wanting the same thing: a decent place to call home, somewhere to belong, a sense of control over their destinies.

He had wanted that once, too. But he’d learned his lesson on that account.

The sheriff’s office loomed ahead on the corner where a side street intersected the main road. It wasn’t the smartest of choices. Left the jail too exposed, in his opinion. But he would keep his own counsel. It was none of his affair. He had other business here. Business he planned on concluding quickly before moving on. The body in the coffin behind him did not alter this plan in any way.

It simply added a few complications that needed to be dealt with first.

He touched a hand to his chest. Beneath his sheepskin, in the pocket of his wool jacket, a piece of paper crinkled under the pressure.

He never should have played the hand. He should have listened when his gut told him to get up and walk away from the table when the desperation in Robert Sutter’s eyes hit a fevered pitch.

But he hadn’t.

The price was always hefty when he ignored his instincts. He had the scars to prove it. Both inside and out.

“Whoa.” Caleb pulled back on the reins, squinting as the late afternoon sun poked over one of the low buildings and hit him square in the eye. He tipped the brim of his felt hat forward to block the blinding light.

He stopped the buckboard in front of the sheriff’s office. He set the brake and jumped down, his muscles protesting after endless hours in the seat. He’d driven straight from Laramie without stopping. He wanted this business over and done with.

Jasper nickered. His horse hadn’t much liked being hitched to the back of the wagon for the trip, replaced by a sturdy draft, but Caleb hadn’t wanted to tire the paint. He needed him fresh and ready for when he left town.

Caleb left the coffin where it was and, ignoring the stares of those who had stopped to gawk, walked into the sheriff’s office.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the sudden dimness.

“Do somethin’ for you?”

Caleb blinked and shifted, moving his exposed back away from the open door. Slowly the shadows took shape. The sheriff sat behind a scarred desk, his feet propped up on top and a newspaper in his lap. The tin badge designating his position held a dull sheen in the pale light. Caleb judged the man’s age to be close to his own thirty years, though he lacked the hard-bitten look Caleb saw every time he looked in a mirror.

“Afternoon,” he said. Flicking the brim of his hat back with one finger, he took in his surroundings. The small office held a desk and chair. In front of the desk were two more straight-backed chairs. A potbellied stove took up the center of the wall he had his back to and it radiated heat, the crisp scent of burning wood almost enough to overpower the smell of leather, bacon and sweat. “I got a body for you.”

The sheriff folded the newspaper and unfolded his long limbs. His feet hit the wood floor with a thud. “Come again?”

From the man’s reaction, Caleb guessed they didn’t get a lot of dead bodies showing up unannounced in Salvation Falls. He hooked a thumb in the direction of the door. He could see a crowd gathering outside. The sheriff noticed, too, and took a few steps forward to peer over Caleb’s shoulder. The sun caught his hair, turning the black almost blue. Sharp, dark eyes slid in Caleb’s direction.

“Whose body you got in there?”

“Man by the name of Robert Sutter.”

Shock registered in the sheriff’s expression, a swift tightening travelling down his body like a bolt of lightning, straightening his posture. “Sutter?”

“Man was in Laramie, playing cards.” Caleb hesitated, unsure of how much to tell the sheriff. He decided the bare minimum would suffice for now. “Got himself shot.”

“Man.” The sheriff’s hand rubbed at his clean-shaven jaw until the tightness in his expression eased and filled with worry and uncertainty. “You came straight here?”

“Three days’ ride.” Caleb hesitated again. “Body oughta be buried straight off.” The sun had beaten down on him for the duration of the journey, and while April high up in Colorado Territory was a far cry from warm, he didn’t guess it did much good to a body stuffed in a pine box.

The sheriff nodded, his attention riveted to the buckboard outside. “I’ll send for his wife.”

Wife.

Caleb’s stomach churned. How had Sutter referred to her? A pants-wearing, mealy-mouthed ball buster.

Great.

He didn’t imagine she would be happy to receive the news he had to give. His hand absently brushed against his hip. It almost made him wish he still wore his guns. Almost.

“Might be Rachel can’t get here till morning. Their spread is a couple hours’ ride out. Be dark by the time someone gets there and breaks it to her.” The sheriff rubbed at his stomach, as if the idea of delivering the news that her husband had died in a card game threatened to dislodge his dinner. “You best hole up for the night,” he continued. “Mrs. Sutter might have some questions she needs answered. Better if you were here to accommodate her. Might make it easier.”

Caleb nodded. He doubted anything he had to say would improve the situation. In fact, just the opposite. But he had to speak to the woman either way. “Hotel?”

“Klein’s is the most decent. Pagget’s is the least expensive.” The sheriff’s hand waved in one direction then the other, the rest of him remained focused on the dead body in the buckboard. He seemed unduly affected by the man’s death.

“Sutter kin to you?”

The man snapped back to attention. “What? No.” He shook his head. “I knew him since we were boys, is all. And Rachel.”

“Expect she’ll be upset.”

The sheriff glanced from the buckboard back to Caleb, his expression unreadable. “I guess any woman would be.”

Despite his words, something in the man’s tone told Caleb not to expect a bucket of tears when the new widow came to town.

“If you could point me in the direction of the undertaker.”

The sheriff walked to the door and plucked his hat off the peg next to it, jamming it onto his dark hair. “I’ll ride down with you.” He turned before stepping over the threshold into the waiting crowd. “What were you doing in Laramie, anyway?”

Caleb pulled the brim of his hat down to shield his eyes, even though the sun had now dipped low enough to no longer be a bother. “Just passin’ through.”

* * *

Rachel Sutter gripped the edge of the wagon, partly to keep her behind from bouncing out of the seat and partly to keep her hands from shaking, as the large black woman known as Freedom Jones drove hell-bent for leather toward town.

“Slow down, Free.” She almost added that Robert wasn’t going anywhere, but managed to bite back the last bit, swallowing her anger. A tough pill, at best, and one that left a chalky residue as it went down. She could not believe it.

Robert was dead.

Killed.

The sheriff had delivered the news himself, arriving shortly after supper and pulling her outside where the boys couldn’t hear their conversation. The minute Hunter Donovan arrived on her doorstep, Rachel knew it was bad news. Dread filled the empty space inside her and made itself at home.

Breaking the news to the boys hadn’t been easy. She did her best to reassure them everything would be fine, but after they had turned in for the night, her numbness gave way, making room for fear to creep in. Curling up on the empty cot in the kitchen where Robert had preferred to sleep, she rocked back and forth with her head buried in her knees. The tears came of their own volition, angering her.

She had cried enough tears during the beginning of their marriage, back when she still believed she could make it work if she tried hard enough. But nothing she did had made a difference.

Robert wasn’t interested in her.

He’d had ambitions for her land, but his ambitions for their marriage became a well of empty promises.

Once again, it fell to her to pick up the pieces. But this time, there would be no reprieve. This time, Robert wasn’t coming back with yet another scheme for riches or promises of recouping all they had lost.

Rachel shook off her memories of last night and glanced behind her at Ethan and Brody. Both were dressed in their Sunday best, though it was only Tuesday. Brody, at nearly fifteen, had taken another growth spurt. The hem and cuffs of his suit betrayed the evidence that she had let them out as far as they could go. She’d have to get him a new one, but their credit at the haberdashery was overextended as it was.

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