Jake Bennett is finally wed to the love of his life, Jessica Hale-but he isn’t convinced she won’t leave him. Life is a constant struggle for the Bennetts as they battle drought and live in fear of raids on Southerners, and he is not sure that Jess knew what she was getting herself into when she married him. Jess, however, despairs for another reason-she is unable to conceive a child. While trying to prove their unconditional love for each other, the Bennetts are devastated to discover that a former friend of Jess’s parents, Miriam Van Dorn, isn’t who they thought she was. Together, they must stand in faith through betrayal, danger, and barrenness, trusting that God will reward their hopes for a better future.
With Cherokee heritage and such ancestors as James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, Tammy Barley inherited her literary vocation and preferred setting: the Wild West. A longtime freelance writer and editor, Tammy is also an accomplished equestrian who homeschools her three children. Book One of her Sierra Chronicles, Love’s Rescue, sold out its first printing within a week of its release in 2009.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $9.99
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Whitaker House (August 3, 2010)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
Western Nevada Territory
“Would you care to rest awhile, Jess?”
Withholding a smile, Jess leaned forward in the saddle as her horse clamored beside Jake’s to the top of the rocky bank. When the ground leveled out, she glanced at the progress of the small herd of Thoroughbred stallions close behind, then tossed a lightly accusing gaze to her husband.
“Rest awhile? Are you coddling me, Bennett?”
In the shadow of his hat brim, Jake’s whisky-brown eyes sparkled at her as he grinned the crooked grin she loved. “No, ma’am, I wouldn’t dare.” He nodded sagely to Taggart and Diaz, the hired men with bandanas pulled up against the rising dust, who wrangled on the opposite side of the herd. “But the boys haven’t stood on their own feet twice since sunup, and they’re looking peaked.”
“Peaked?” Jess looked to the burly, orange-haired Irishman and the sinewy, born-in-the-saddle Spaniard and burst out laughing. “Those two wouldn’t walk to their dinner plates if they could ride!”
The sleek, long-limbed Thoroughbreds continued, heads bobbing, toward the mountains, whistled on by the two cattlemen. From her position riding flank, Jess took in the beauty of white nose blazes and white socks flashing amid the bays, chestnuts, and blacks, framed by the red earth and green pines of the Sierra Nevadas.
They were going home.
Jess quieted, but her smile remained. “I couldn’t stop now, Jake. We only have ten miles before we reach the ranch.”
Ten, out of seventeen hundred, she mused, and eight months since she had seen this part of the country. When they left the ranch, they hadn’t been married and she hadn’t been certain she’d ever come back. Even so, she hadn’t forgotten the beauty of the mountains, her love of the ranch in Honey Lake Valley, and her dream to raise horses with the good man beside her.
Jess’s horse stumbled, then recovered. Amid the scattered rocks and fragrant clusters of gray-green sagebrush around them, desert flowers added brilliant splashes of purple, red, and orange. When they left the ranch, the land had been brown, dry from a year of heat and draught. Clearly winter snows and spring rains had come, for now life bloomed everywhere.
Well, almost everywhere. With a twinge of sadness, Jess pressed a gloved hand to the flatness of her stomach.
She and Jake had married in the fall, on one of the most beautiful autumn days God had ever created. As a wedding gift, Jake had given her the herd of Thoroughbreds, which grazed in the Bennetts’ paddock while the pastor stood with them beneath an arch of trees and joined them as husband and wife.
All she had wanted was to give Jake a child in return. And now, it seemed, she was barren.
“What do you suppose they’re thinking, your horses?”
Jess dropped her hand and smiled. “Our horses,” she corrected. “They’re probably wishing they had taken a train instead.”
Jake chuckled, his broad shoulders threatening the seams of his white cotton shirt. “Is that what you wish, Jess? That the transcontinental was nearly finished instead of only beginning?”
“No, I wouldn’t want to be packed into a noisy passenger car any more than you would. I’d rather see the land, be a part of it.”
“Well this land looks as though it’s seen some rain this year.”
“I was just thinking the same.”
“What else were you thinking?”
Jess glanced at him. Since the day they met in Carson City more than a year before, she’d often been startled by how closely he paid attention, how he seemed to know her thoughts. “Mostly I’m looking forward to seeing everyone at the ranch,” she evaded. “Ho Chen, Doyle, all the Paiute women, and Two Hands. I wonder how many of the mustangs Lone Wolf was able to breed.”
The Bennett Mountain Ranch. Their ranch. Tickled by the thought, Jess laughed out loud in pure joy.
“Jess?” The curiosity in Jake’s voice pulled her gaze to his.
“We’re going home,” she said, a pleasant tightness in her chest. “I feel . . .” She lifted a hand, uncertain how to describe it. “I feel like a young falcon, about to leap into the wind for the first time.”
He smiled his understanding, then suddenly turned tense, alert. He drew his Remington. An instant later, Taggart and Diaz did the same.
A rock burst on the ground beside Jess. The sharp report of rifle fire echoed across the desert. All at once shots exploded, pelting the road around them with shattered stones and dust plumes. Drawing her own revolver, Jess whipped her mare around and looked past Jake to an outcropping of rocks where rifles barked and gun smoke curled away.
The mare abruptly jerked then reared high, spilling Jess’s hat and tumbling her long braid free. The horse teetered on its hind legs then went over backward.
Pain exploded through Jess’s back and lungs.
An image flashed through her mind—the ranch, only not as they left it. Where the workshop, supply shed, and stable had once sat, large black smudges marred the ground. Eerie dread filled her at the vision, and at the realization that though she could see the ranch compound, she heard no wind, no movement, no sound at all.
A flash of daylight, then Jess felt sharp rocks beneath her back and smelled the pungent tang of gun smoke. Pain seared her right arm. Beside her, its neck bearing a bullet hole and spattered with blood, her horse thrashed once more then lay still.
Her gaze shifted to the back of Jake’s boots which stood rooted a few feet away, his long legs and broad shoulders tense. Jake had positioned himself and his horse between her and the outcropping. The gunfire had stopped. “I’m all right, Jake. You?”
His hat shifted with his answering nod, but his attention remained fixed on the distant rocks. Finally, he turned and went down on one knee near her hip. “The gunmen are gone.”
“And the Thoroughbreds?”
“Taggart and Diaz just rode after them. They’ll bring them back.” With great care, he leaned over her and felt her ribs, but pain whorled through her side, and she winced and caught her breath. Then winced again. “Anything feel broken, Jess?”
“I don’t believe so, but my ribs hurt when I breathe in.”
He pressed gently on her left side where she indicated, shifted his big hand, then pressed again. “I can’t feel any movement through your corset. I suspect that contraption just saved you from anything worse than bruising. Your ribs will likely hurt for a few weeks, especially when you breathe in, but they should heal fine.” He glanced at the cut on her arm that had begun to burn like fire, then stood and retrieved a bottle of whiskey and a clean bandana from his saddlebag.
With her good arm, Jess carefully pushed herself up, forcing herself not to groan at the pain in her side. Ranchmen never complained, even when shot. She had become one of them, and she wasn’t about to fuss over a little bruising and a cut.
Jake walked a few paces to where her hat had fallen on the other side of the dead horse then hesitantly returned it to her. She pulled it on, sensing his concern for her with the simple gesture, and felt overwhelming relief that he hadn’t been injured in the attack. “Jake, those men couldn’t have been outlaws. They must have been Paiute.”
He looped his horse’s reins around his arm and handed her the folded bandana. “That was my thought as well. If they’d been outlaws, they would have gone after the horses.”
He’d known, Jess realized. That was why she’d seen him fire only warning shots into the ground; she and Jake had friends among the Paiute. Several families worked at their ranch.
“Bands of Paiute have been trying to warn off immigrants for the last few years,” he said, “shooting from the hills along the Lassen Trail and north of Pyramid Lake. Apparently things have gotten worse, and the Paiutes have gotten bolder. You’re wearing britches and your braid was up under your hat. When your hat fell and your braid came free, they took off, so apparently they’re just warning folks away. None of the Paiutes I’ve met have ever killed innocent settlers.”
“But why attack this far south? You’re not the only rancher around here who employs them.”
“I agree; it doesn’t make sense.” Jake looked to where Taggart and Diaz had regained control of the Thoroughbreds less than a mile away. One man rode on either side of the herd, heading toward them at an easy pace to calm the skittish horses. “Let’s see your arm.”
Blood had soaked into the blue flannel shirtsleeve along her forearm, and from the feel of it dripping down her arm and the throbbing pain, she knew it was more than a simple cut.
Something flickered in Jake’s eyes. “You were shot?”
“No, I wasn’t. I must have hit it on a rock when I fell. Come to think of it, I lost my gun.” She briefly scanned the ground for it, but then he eased the sleeve up her arm and she looked away, certain that if she saw the wound, it would hurt more. “How bad is it?”
Jake held her forearm in his hand and gently turned it from side to side. “It’s a gash, but I won’t have to stitch it.”
The cork made a dull thunk as he pulled it from the whiskey bottle. The bottle glugged, then searing liquid ran over her arm with the piercing sting of a branding iron. She drew in her breath. Her ribs screamed.
“Do you know you only call me Bennett when you’re put out with me?” He poured again.
Jess hissed through her teeth, then smiled a little at the tease in his deep, mellow voice. “I think it’s a habit.”
“To be put out with me?”
For the sake of her ribs, she fought against a chuckle. “No, to call you Bennett in front of the men.” Jess knew he intentionally kept the conversation light. “If the men hear me call you Jake, it might change your status in their eyes. They don’t need to see you as my husband; they need to see you as their boss.”
“Only on the range, Jess. When the doors close at night, there will only be you and me.”
Jess stiffened as though she’d been struck. He’d wanted to reassure her with his words, she knew, yet it was a painful reminder that she still wasn’t expecting after nearly seven months of marriage. But, she told herself, what mattered most right now was the ranch, and building it with Jake. A quarter of a mile away, Taggart and Diaz had stopped and stood talking together, keeping a casual watch on the desert while the horses grazed. Their horses, hers and Jake’s. Horses which would enable them to be less dependent on cattle for their income, and to be one of the first ranches in the northern Sierras to raise horses to sell. If only . . . Now that they were out of danger, she allowed herself to ponder the odd vision. The cold fear returned, and her knees and legs trembled.
“Jake, I saw something . . . in my mind, when I fell.”
In the shadow of his hat brim, his sun-bronzed face turned thoughtful. Jake corked and set aside the whiskey, took the cloth from her hand, and bound the wound. “What is it that you saw?”
“The ranch compound, except some of the buildings were gone, and two of the corrals,” she recalled. “Only one corral remained. Where they had stood, the ground was black as though barrels of gunpowder had spilled. Seeing it scared me, Jake. I only saw it for a second or two, but in that instant, it felt as real as if I was actually there. Then I opened my eyes and saw the horse beside me, and then you. I think something bad is going to happen.”
Rather than wave away or make excuses for what she’d told him, he remained beside her, elbow on his knee, as he considered. She loved him for always listening to her.
“Has this ever happened before?”
“No. I have felt strongly about the outcome of various events, though, so strongly that I knew what would or wouldn’t happen. A year ago, when Ambrose was listed as missing in the war, I knew my brother wasn’t dead. I knew it.”
“I remember. You also told me last autumn that you believed outlaws would attack the ranch, and then they did.”
“So you believe me?”
“I don’t doubt that you saw what you say you did. Yes, I believe you.” He briefly scanned the foothills; there was no unusual movement among the rocks and sagebrush. “Do you remember my pa’s neighbor, the older lady who walked with two canes?”
“I only met her once, but I remember her.”
“When I was a boy—no more than nine or ten—she hurried over one night in a fluster and told my pa a tornado was coming, no more than an hour out. Almost exactly an hour later, it struck and took out half our corn before it dissipated. Later she told my pa that she occasionally had feelings about such things, and even saw a number of events before they happened. Premonitions, I reckon. I’ve occasionally heard similar about other women, whether or not their husbands had the good sense to listen to them. No, I won’t discount what you’ve told me, Jess.”
“But you don’t believe it.”
“I won’t lie to you, Jess. I’m not sure if I believe it or if I don’t.” He reached over and lightly squeezed her good arm. “Let’s just take things as they come.”
Jess struggled with disappointment, but she was glad Jake had listened. Within hours, they would learn firsthand if what she envisioned had, in fact, happened.
As Jake helped her to her feet, she dearly hoped they would find the ranch to be just as they left it, but she didn’t believe it would be.
At Jess’s insistence that she would not ride double due to her injuries any sooner than Jake would in her place, Jake had pulled the saddle, bridle, and gear from Jess’s dead horse and saddled the Thoroughbred stallion he would ride while Jess rode his calmer quarter horse—the only concession she would make.
Jess was more willful and determined than a Chicago storm.
Lord above, he loved that about her.
Unfortunately, it also made his guts churn in agony.
When her horse went over and crushed her beneath, his heart nearly exploded. Then, injured and struggling to rise, the gelding rolled over her again before it thrashed then lay still beside her. Years ago, about twenty miles to the south of where they rode now, his first wife and their baby daughter were on their way to visit family when outlaws attacked and killed them both. He nearly died himself when he discovered their bodies, Olivia’s and Sadie’s. He couldn’t endure losing Jess or seeing her harmed again.
What she had said about a premonition sat like a passel of thorns in his mind. He could work through whatever came, but what about Jess? She had been raised the daughter of a horse breeder in Lexington, Kentucky, and when the Hale family had moved west, she had kept books for his import business. She had not been raised to this life. She was strong and determined now, but what if years of hardships of living and working on a ranch in the wilderness became too much for her as it did for many ranchers’ wives? The fear entered his mind weeks ago when he lost several of their Thoroughbreds to Plains Indians, and the gunmen’s attack—and what she suffered as a result—solidified that fear. Would he eventually lose her?
“Bennett? Your face has turned grim and stiff as iron,” she said. “You’re worried about something. What’s on your mind?”
Rimmed with long, sooty lashes, Jess’s sage-green eyes bore into his as she brushed loose strands of her brown hair from her face. Her soft, rose-red lips revealed she was all woman, though she rode with the ease a man, albeit having a care for an injured side. He and Jess hadn’t been alone a single moment in weeks, even after nightfall, and now her ribs were injured. Though he’d waited with great patience all this time to be alone with her in the ranch house, what he’d had in mind would have to wait until she’d healed. All that mattered was that he keep her safe and give her a horse ranch to replace the one she’d loved and left behind years ago in Kentucky.
He eyed her revolver which was holstered once again in the gun belt at her narrow waist. Seeing to it that she was safe and happy was no small task. Trouble seemed to follow her. That is, when she wasn’t out looking for it.
One of the Thoroughbreds started to break from the herd. Jake changed its mind with a quick wave of the coiled rope in his hand, and forced a new thought into his own mind so he could answer her without dishonesty. “Well, Missus Bennett, I was just hoping there’s been enough rain that the river’s running high again. I plan to sink right into it, boots and all.”
Jess’s rosy lips curved into in a smile. “You’ll rust your spurs.”
“Hardly. After riding for weeks behind this herd amid all the dust they’re raising, my spurs’ll need a good soaking just as much as I will.”
“Perhaps,” she agreed, “but that’s not what turned your jaw to iron, and a muscle in your neck stood out when you glanced at my gun.”
Jake sighed. A dozen or so yards ahead of him and Jess, Taggart and Diaz rode in comfortable silence, their attention on the herd they wrangled. There was little chance they would overhear. Even so, Jake discreetly lowered his voice.
“What’s on my mind is that for the past few years you held your family together despite the war trying to pull you apart, and you were strong for your ma before she died. You didn’t have anyone to depend on but yourself for a long time, and I respect all you did for them. But—”
“But I’m impulsive.”
Jess blinked. She hadn’t expected that.
“You weren’t born to this life, Jess, and the Almighty must have known you’d need plenty of courage, because He surely gave you a barrelful.” He grinned, then more soberly looked to the bandana he’d knotted as a bandage on her forearm. “I’d just like you to tell me if this life becomes . . . hard for you. I’ll do whatever I can to keep that from happening, even if we have to give up the ranch and move on.”
Her eyes flashed green fire. “Not born to this life? Bennett, do you think I’d rather be dungeoned up in the dank corner of a store tallying rows of numbers than be here with you? And what about Olivia? You married her.”
“Times weren’t hard for Olivia and me. Besides, she was born to this.”
“I grew up in the South amid political stirrings and secessions, and the knowledge that during my lifetime war would come and possibly destroy all I held dear. What would you reply if I had said that to you?”
Jake lifted a shoulder, acknowledging her point. “I probably would have said that trials build character. But I was brought up this way. You and I are different.”
“Look again.” Jess huffed indignantly. “I thought I was the one who fell off a horse and had the sense knocked out of—”
“I don’t want to lose you.”
At his confession, her anger abruptly vanished, and her face held only understanding and love. “Then I’ll be careful not to get ‘lost.’”
Jake returned his attention to their herd. Her words sounded nearly as soothing to his mind as the smooth, Southern accent with which she had spoken them.
Lord above, he loved that about her too.
“Hey, boss,” Diaz called over his shoulder to Jake. “Those vacas are on your ranch, but they don’ carry your brand.”
Jess peered at the herd of eighteen or twenty cows grazing about an acre’s length distant. Diaz was right. Instead of Jake’s sideways B brand with the flat side down, each red-and-white hide bore a circle with an M in the center. They leisurely enjoyed the Bennett Ranch’s bunchgrass as if they’d always called the place home.
The nearest ranch was located so far from their own that Jess had never seen another brand within a mile of the compound. That uncomfortable realization, coupled with the fact that none of their ranchmen, mustangs, or cattle were in sight, fueled her apprehension.
Something was very wrong.
The men whistled the Thoroughbreds on, and finally, over the tops of the sagebrush, the ranch buildings came into view. The massive stable should have been the first building they saw. It was gone, and no smaller structures that had once huddled beside it remained to block their view of the barn.
Jess felt rather than saw Jake tense beside her.
The Paiute village that had stretched along the riverbank lay dismantled and scattered, as if the wigwams had been forcibly torn apart and the branches dragged beyond the outskirts of the camp.
Taggart and Diaz exchanged troubled glances, but drove the horses the final distance into the compound.
Where the workshop, supply shed, and stable had once sat, large black smudges marred the ground. Only one of three corrals that Jake had built remained.
In silence Jake, Taggart, and Diaz guided the stallions into the sole corral, and, having a care for her ribs, Jess closed and latched the gate.
The men stepped to the ground then tied their reins over the top rail of the corral. While Taggart and Diaz began to unload and unsaddle their horses, Jake gently lifted her down.
Like the hired men, Jess untied her saddlebags and set them aside then loosened the cinch strap. Though the buildings that had stood on the east end of the compound had been destroyed, the barn to the north and the smithy and cookhouse to the immediate west of it seemed to be in good condition, though no inviting, fragrant smoke rose from the cookhouse chimney. South and west of the cookhouse, the bunkhouse lay low and long as it always had, and south of that—between her and the initial slope that led up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains that she loved—rose the pine logs that formed the two stories of the ranch house. Its wide front window, brown with dust, would benefit from cleaning, and the porch and its two steps looked weathered and in need of repair.
By all appearances, the ranch had been deserted, except that to the west, beyond the bunkhouse, the garden had been planted, and beyond it, on what had been their property, someone had built a new house.
The silence shattered with the loud metallic cock of a shotgun.
All of them spun toward the ranch house.
***Special thanks to Cathy Hickling of Whitaker House for sending me an ARC review copy.***
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