Behind the Ranges, Book IX

He sought adventure and found deadly danger. She followed her father, and found heartbreak.

Squire's Quest cover
eBook ISBN 978-1-60174-114-1
Trade paperback ISBN 978-1492279419

"[The Behind the Ranges series]...paints a picture of the West as it was so many lives ago"~~Sensual Romance

November 1875

They arrived in Cheyenne late on the second day. As Callie was stumbling toward the vestibule on feet so cold they didn't want to work, she heard someone say the train was three hours late. The icy wind that met her as she stepped down to the platform made her wish it had been on time. Wouldn't it have been warmer in the daytime?

Inside the station, she collapsed gratefully on a bench while Pa talked to a man behind a brass-barred window. He was mad, and the longer they talked, the madder he got. She couldn't hear what they said, but decided it didn't matter anyway. She'd learn soon enough where they were headed next.

Why didn't I tell him I wanted to stay in Virginia City? He couldn't have forced me to come, could he?

Mrs. Flynn had said she had to go because she wasn't of age yet. But she would be, come Christmas. Leastways she thought she would. Wasn't eighteen a woman grown?

How much duty does a daughter owe her folks, anyhow? Don't they owe her something in return? Those were ungodly thoughts and she quickly banished them.

After a few minutes, she heard him swear. Fingers crossed, she hoped he wouldn't take his anger out on her. The bruise around her eye had faded, but was still tender.

He was digging in his pocket when he came back to her. His hand came out, holding coins and a couple of crumpled bills. "Here, take this. You're on your own 'til I come back. Shouldn't be more'n a week." He picked up the valise he'd left with her and stared to walk away.

"Pa? Wait!"

"What?"

"Where are... What am I supposed to do?" She looked down at the money he'd handed her. Two dollar bills and half a dozen coins. One was a five dollar piece, but the rest were silver and copper. No more than eight dollars in all. "Where will I stay?"

"Find a place. Get yourself work. You can't expect me to take care of you all the time." Without a word of farewell, he strode to the door and disappeared into the night.

The station agent was a nice man. He let her stay in the station until morning.

~*~

December 1875

Eight weeks after leaving Dodge City, Merlin rode into Denver. He'd climbed three-quarters of the way up the mountain they called Pike's Peak, nursed a homesteader with a broken leg until he could hobble around on his own, and spent near a week in a snow cave when winter swept down from the peaks as he was making his way out of the Rockies.

Denver was a mighty fine city, but it looked to be a lot quieter than Dodge had been. He'd heard Colorado was going to be a state soon and some said Denver was to be the capital. Maybe next year was the word he'd heard in some saloon or other, if Congress would get off its collective arses.

For the first time since he'd ridden out of Dodge City, he was glad to see other folks. Before anything else, he got himself a room in a hotel with indoor plumbing.

What the day was didn't matter much to him. When he heard church bells somewhere, he decided it must be Sunday, which explained the lack of traffic on the streets. There was a bath house next to the hotel, so he took advantage of it. Got himself a shave too, and vowed to buy a new pair of socks to replace the ones he'd wore holes in, first thing on Monday.

Maybe while he was here, he'd look up that woman Buff and Silas were acquainted with. Tilly Something-or-Other. "Bet if I ask about high-class bawdyhouses, I'll find her, "he mused as he turned off the gaslight.

The next morning he took himself over to the Post Office to see if there was any held mail for him. When he'd sent the telegram from Dodge City, he'd let the folks know where he was heading.

"Lachlan? I did see something with that name," the clerk said, when asked. He turned to a wall full of cubbyholes. "Lachlan. Yes, here 'tis." Pulling a bundle of envelopes from a well-stuffed cubby, he checked their addresses.

"Merlin Lachlan?"

"That's me."

"Then these are all yours. 'Pears you've got a sight of readin' to do."

"I'm obliged," Merlin said, taking them. He restrained his curiosity until he was outside.

Most of the envelopes were from his folks, but there was one from Regina and one from Iris. The return address on the forwarded one with foreign stamps was illegible, but his name was carefully printed. He reckoned it was from his older brother. Buff's handwriting was a caution. He crammed the bundle into the pocket of his duster and headed toward the hotel. He had all afternoon to spend on his mail, before he went out to see what Denver had to offer after dark. Maybe he'd have dinner sent up, with a pint of brandy. After more than a year of living rough, he felt like enjoying a little luxury. He hadn't slept on ironed sheets since he left New Orleans.

Later, replete with rare steak and creamy mashed potatoes, he leaned back against a pile of pillows and started with the oldest letters first. Ma and Pa were well, and starting to plan their trip to Australia. He reread the paragraph where Ma said they were thinking to come home the long way, through Europe. She'd a hankering to see Rome and Paris.

He had to chuckle. His ma had always said she was done with traveling, but he guessed trains and steamships were a far cry from covered wagons.

Buff was in England, still working for the Coalition, but he was setting up an office of Dewitt Shipping there, too. The kids were fine. There would soon be a fourth little Lachlan. He chuckled when he saw the P.S. Silas says we'll change the name of the company to D&L Shipping if I don't manage to run us into bankruptcy. He's given up hoping Tony will take over.

Hard to imagine Buff a daddy, after the adventurous life he'd led for so long.

Regina had decided to stay in college, even though she'd graduated once. What good all that education would do her, he hadn't a notion, but he wished her well. Iris now planned to study economics, whatever that was. He had a feeling she'd get tired of it within a year, just as she had science and mathematics, literature and philosophy. His littlest sister was smart as a whip, but had a butterfly mind, flitting from subject to subject, never staying with one for any time at all. Nobody said what Rhys was up to, which he was afraid meant his younger brother was raising hell instead of minding his studies.

There was another letter from his ma, not nearly so fat as the first one. It was postmarked just last week. Curious he opened it and started reading.

...strangest thing, but I thought it might be important. We didn't get it for near a week after it came, because it was addressed wrong, but when Randy Strange came back from his trip to San Francisco, he figured out real quick that it had to be for us.

I'm sure it's really for you, because I can't make head nor tail out of it. That's why I'm sending you the telegram just as we got it. If it's not yours, send it back, and I'll let Randy figure out who's suppose to get it.

He pulled the folded yellow sheet from the envelope. The words meant nothing at first, until he got to the last two words. Cal Smith.

Great God. Cal. I can't believe— He read again, this time forcing himself to make sense of what he saw.

What sense he could, anyhow. The message was so cryptic it seemed nonsensical at first. Then he forced himself to think about what it didn't say.

That father of hers was a bad man. He'd realized that much in the few minutes before the man had all but run him off. A hard man and a mean-spirited one.

He'd never forgotten the expression of loss he'd seen in Cal's eyes as he'd left her alone with him. Oh, yes, she'd been where she'd traveled a thousand miles to be, but Merlin hadn't been convinced then—or yet—that he should have left her with the man.

He laid the telegram on his thigh and leaned back against the headboard. Cheyenne. It was what? Less than two hundred miles away. He'd no compelling reason to stay in Denver, nothing beyond curiosity and a hankering for bright lights and fancy women.

Nothing he couldn't live without.


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